Science, and I am trying to remember the wording of the lecture I had heard two days before. See, I had learned with Mr. Liechin how to memorize so I didn’t have to do the homework. I never, not once, did a single stitch of homework in Slinger. I just took tests. I read books and listened intently to lectures. I had learned, or been stained with the knowledge of how to do the slightest bit of my school work and get by. I could hold a strong B with almost no effort.
Olsen had yelled at me. He told me I was throwing it all away the last time I saw him. I never really understood what he was talking about until this morning, after I stayed up all night writing Liechin’s War and really took the time to think about it. I had, for the briefest of moments, been one of the gifted kids. I had the grades and the work ethic, but my hard year with Mr. Liechin taught me new habits, and Olsen saw it all coming. He knew that as soon as I realized how little I had to do to get by, and figured out how far even the slightest bit of effort could get me, that I would be too tempted to push myself ever again. Something had been killed in me when Malice stabbed me. This would lead me to a life of mediocrity until I was deep in therapy. Until I was set straight. But that was not until I was in my 30s.
But after that, look out.
For now, though, I was sitting at the desk in the middle of the room, thinking real hard about what had been said two days ago, when a smack hit the back of my head as Prickle walked past. The boys behind me snickered and I huffed. I hunkered deeper in my coat and just tried not to exist. The kid dropped off his test at the teacher’s desk and started walking back to his seat. The teacher was not paying attention and I looked up to see Prickle’s hand set out, the boy’s eyes alight, and every boy behind me laughing.
I braced myself to get slapped. But when Prickle had damn near done it, he doubled over and screamed.
One swift punch to the nuts from the guy sitting on the other side of the aisle. Prickle doubled over and the boy punched again. This time his tiny, diabolical fist grabbed what he found and, after a savage jerk to the floor, Prickle was on his knees gripping his crotch.
The boy in the desk across the aisle elbowed Prickle in the temple and Prickle was on his side, curled up fetal. Then, the inexplicable boy across from me stood
and picked up his desk. He dropped it on Prickle and began stomping the poor boy’s face.
These teachers were never trained for this. 20th Street teachers would never have let it get this far, but these teachers had not seen this level of brutality, this level of insanity, enough to be prepared. So, when this wild monster of a boy had stomped Prickle’s head a few times, the teacher finally got to him and wrapped his arms around the boy.
I looked up to see the maniac smiling at me. “I’m X!” he shouted.
The whole class sat stunned.
“See you on the bus, Joe!”
That was how I met X. That was how I met the kid in the running for the most insane I had ever met. Would ever meet. Prickle crawled away and the class sat stunned. No one talked for the entire twenty minutes the teacher was gone.
And X did meet me on the bus. They hadn’t expelled him and sent him home to never come back, because back then, they didn’t have a system in place for boys like X. No one knew what to do with that level of insanity.
I walked onto the bus after not dressing out for Gym, and I looked for him but couldn’t find him. I stared for a long time, my eyes scanning, until I heard a meek voice say, “Hey Joe, sit with me.” I looked up to see a fourth grader.
The boy had to be a fourth grader. What he was doing on this bus was a mystery. How he had gotten all the way from the elementary school here was up for grabs, but there he was. He stood about four feet tall. He had a lean, leering face and wild crystal blue eyes. He was all teeth, his smile devouring every inch of his face, and he could not have weighed more than sixty pounds.
And he was not a fourth grader.
“X?” I said. “You’re X?”
“Sit with me,” the boy said. “How was your day?”
“My day? Are you serious? Are we not going to talk about this?”
“About what?” He took a candy bar out of his pocket and peeled it open. He took a bite and handed it to me. “Take a bite, it’s good. One of those hundred grands. You can only get those in Slinger. You can’t get those anywhere around Allenton.”
“Where did you get it?”
“I stole it. Want some?”
And I did want some. I wanted everything this kid was offering. I wanted in completely. When I looked at him, I saw the devil. But it was a kind of petulant devil, a tiny fist in the air flipping the bird as it walked out of the room devil. It was like being friends with the Joker. This kid could be nothing but insane, but there was no help for kids like him back then. No person he could talk to. No home to send him to. The country towns had no answer for X. So they did the best they could to look away and hope he didn’t burn the city to the ground. But they weren’t really watching anyway.
So who cared?
He was loyal. Taught me about loyalty in a way no other force in this world ever had. X would take a knife for me any time. He took a knife from me but didn’t care. With the casual attitude that one might pick up a stone and throw it in the lake, X had picked me up, put me in his pocket, and kept me ever since. To this day I think he is still my friend. If I walked up to him right now, he would offer me a bite of the sandwich he was eating.
That was his way. No one else would be friends with him because they were all terrified of him. They thought he was complicated and too dangerous to have around. But instantly, I knew better. This was not a complicated boy at all. This boy was dangerous, but not to me. He was just a savage. He had no rules but those he made himself. He was a whirling ball of chaos. And he was my friend. One of the best friends I have ever had.
When I snuck out at night for the first time with him, and saw him standing outside my house with a drum of gas in his hand, I asked him what we were going to do. He shrugged and we walked away. When he shattered a car window, poured the gas in, and set the front seat on fire, Shadow was born.
Servant had no answer for X. This was not a boy Guardian or anyone else could ever be around. We needed darkness to roll with X, and we were addicted to him. We had to have Shadow. He was our middle finger to the world.
He had arrived. After the street fights and Billy Badass. After Cage and Rambo. After Malice and Pride had grabbed every piece of fuck you they could find, and they hammered it all together and added gas, he had arrived. We had Shadow.