“Fuck the intercom,” Brett read. He had needed something to read at Group. This was what he had come up with.
“Fuck the fucking intercom.” It used to interrupt us with announcements all the time in the middle of a reading.
“Fuck the fucking, fucking intercom.”
Mrs. Bronte erupted. “This is not appropriate for this group.” She looked at me and I nodded.
“Cursing is allowed if it adds to the piece, but is not to be the focal point of the writing.” I looked at him with a hateful eye. “If you want to call it that.” I waved at Brilliance. “We are moving on. Brilliance, you have something?”
He was small, pock ridden with acne, glum and quiet. The object of ridicule and wrath. But he was one of the best writers I have read to this day. Brilliance had a way to his writing. It was dark the way that a rose is dark when it just begins to sag. When the wrinkles are coming for it and its bloom falls open, tired and exhausted, unable to spring back into place.
Brilliance was the best of us, in my opinion, and this was no different. His voice shook when he read. He was always near to crying. His hands trembled as he spoke, fear of jeering gripped him in a panicked frenzy. But he was safe here.
The boy hated me with a passion that is unheard of. To this day, I cannot grasp how much he hated me. They say he hated me so greatly that he would not talk about it. When people hate something, they always want to bad mouth it. They always want to tear it down or break it as much as they can. Hate brings out the devil in man. But this boy’s hate of me was so mighty that he suffered actual physical pain when people talked about me. He was barely able to sit in a room with me without getting sick to his stomach. But here he sat, reading his tragically breathtaking piece, breaking every heart and bringing damnation to any person that had to follow him.
I wept in the glow of his piece. It shut everyone down. Brilliance had a tendency to do that.
We rambled out of the classroom, set for places unknown.
“What’s next?” Walleye asked.
“Jammy’s house. I’m thirsty. Jammy, can I steal a drink?” I said. It was the closest house to the school, and her mother loved us.
“You can of course, but then you have to leave. I have to do my project for English,” she said.
“What are you doing?” Chanel asked. It was a yearly project for the sophomore teacher, and everyone hated it.
“I’m making the Rose theater,” Jammy smiled. “Out of Spam.”
We all laughed. Harvard most of all.
“How many cans of Spam will that take?” he said.
“My mom bought twelve, but I sent her back. I need at least twenty to get it done. Gonna stink to the gods when I finally get it to the class. Mrs. Marka’s room is going to reek all day long.”
“You could always eat it for lunch,” Katty said. No one laughed. She had said it too quietly for any of them to hear. I put an arm around her and smiled.
“You’re gross,” I said. I pulled her in close and kissed the top of her head.
Walleye had to go home and help his dad with the car. Jammy had the Spam. Chanel had promised to go somewhere with Glare. Katty had to get home. Brett was going with Chanel. Cry was gone. Gypsy, Brilliance all had better things to do. When the shuffling was done, it was only me and Harvard still standing. We had not spent time together alone since Careful.
“I guess you’re with me.” He threw an arm around me and grinned. “We will see if you survive it.” I knew the funk pouring off of him was pungent, but I couldn’t smell it.
“I like my chances,” I said. There was no way I was going to fear him. I had decided that if he wanted some sort of revenge, we would fight it out until we had settled it all. I was not going to live in fear of anyone in this group. It was too sacred.
When we had dropped off the last of our crew, we drove for a long time. It was winter and we played freeze out. Rolling down the windows and turning up the air conditioner in the car. I pulled off my jacket. I was German. I was from Milwaukee. He was not winning this.
After ten minutes at seventy five miles per hour, I had to give in. He was Scandinavian.
We dove into the backroads behind Fort Leonard Wood, and with the puff of the tires on the cold ice packed gravel, we vanished.
We listened to music. We talked about the group. We laughed and I sang, and when the sky darkened, we found ourselves at the top of a hill on the ice. He looked at me and I laughed.
“Be careful. We don’t want to die here. You still have brilliant work to write. We can’t lose you,” I said.
“What’s this ‘we’ stuff. I’m taking you with me.” He slammed on the gas and we sped off. We topped out at fifty. When we hit the curve at the bottom of the hill, he pulled right and the car spun. We spit gravel and ice. We swung out wide for the drop off at the far side of the road, and I thought of Truth and the fact that I would never see her again. We came to a stop off the road, one tire in the ditch. He grabbed the wheel and roared. A sound that only Harvard could pull off. He looked at me, and in his face, I saw true happiness. He gave me an awkward high five and we morphed it into a grip, and I knew that as much as he hated me, he loved me, too.
We got out to survey the damage. There was none. He got back in the car and jammed on the gas. I knew this was a bad idea. This was not the way to unstuck a car off the road. But I didn’t know the proper way, so I just let him go.
We had no cell phones back then. We were out in the middle of nowhere. We had no blankets in the car or any kind of food except the remnants that could be found in the fast food trash. We had no way of helping ourselves, and we had not seen another car in two hours. I felt the gravity of our situation and my heart sank when the tires spit rock but did not pull out.
“Fuck!” he screamed.
We were walking.
Cold was redefined in that moment. It was diabolical in that moment. Had a vendetta in that moment. Wind was harrowing. The slippery ground provided no purchase. But we were German and Viking, and we had a chance.
“I’m sorry about Careful,” I said. “If I had known, I never would have agreed. I never would have—”
“Don’t man, just don’t. It wasn’t you, it was me. I never should have shared her. She was too precious for that. I did love her, but I looked away. I don’t think I know how to love a woman.”
“Yeah, me either. I’m a devastating monster to women. Mary needs to get the fuck away from me. She needs to escape. Needs to find herself another, another—”
“What she needs is a preppy guy to shuffle off into banality with. She is a mistake, man. Get away from her,” Harvard said.
We saw a small building ahead and he pointed. “We can warm up in there.”
He kicked the door in with his heavy combat boot and we stuffed ourselves in. It was small, a shed, nothing more, and when we were locked inside, we found that it didn’t give much in the way of warmth. The wooden planks that formed the walls were too far apart. We could see through the slats, could feel the air slicing through them, and I shook my head and spit.
“Not going to help being in here,” I said.
“Unless,” Harvard said. He kicked a can at his feet. It was a rusty barrel-shaped can with a spout, red and about eighteen inches tall. We found out when he sloshed it around that it was half full with gas. He grinned and I shook my head and laughed.
“Got matches?” I asked.
“Keep a lighter on me at all times. Never know when you are gonna need to blow shit up to burn down something beautiful.” He grinned and I wondered if he was not a maniac.
He splashed gas on the floor and out into the ground. He tossed the can away and giggled like a child being tickled.
He lit the gas path, and when it hit the floor of the shed, it went up with a great whoosh and a gust of warm air.
The wind brought it to raging and Harvard looked at it with hungry eyes.
“How about we jump in?” he said.
“World needs your writing. I will break your leg if I have to to keep you out here.”
“World is better off without us,” he said. “Both of us.” He stepped forward and I almost pulled him back. But somewhere in me, I wanted him to burn. Wanted him to step into that fire and go up like a Viking warrior headed to Valhalla. Like the world’s hottest brand, a light for only me to see. I watched him step close before he bent over and roared.
Straight into the eye of the flames, he screamed in rage unbridled and pain unmatched. He was a figure of pain and horror lit by the fire of an abandoned shed, lit by our only shelter to the horrors of winter. He was the most powerful, most devastating, most tragic thing I had ever seen. I thought about how beautiful it would be to see him go up, and I walked up to him and hugged him from behind.
He struggled in my embrace for a moment before sobbing and dropping his shoulders.
“If you die now, none of them will understand. I can’t capture this for them. You’re leaving the people that love you.”
Harvard and I walked back to the car. It had been pulled out of the ditch by a passing truck. They didn’t stick around to say anything. Just left a note scratched on a Taco Bell receipt that said, You’re welcome.
We drove home and never talked about that trip, that fire, or the unbridled pain and rage that almost claimed Harvard. It stayed with him all of the days that I knew him. He was haunted by loss and pain.
But our group made it a bit easier. The friends we had banded together eased it a little. That was the best we could ask for.