There is a chapel somewhere that had its ceiling painted by a guy, I think his name was Mikey. Well, there was this priest who really hated Mikey. Tried really hard to get him fired, tried to get him in trouble. This priest was a dick and he was fucking with a painter. A good one.
Well, Mikey was paid to paint the ceiling, see, but he was given a little extra if he would paint the back wall. The chapel was looking for a Judgment Day kinda theme and they wanted God and Jesus up high and then the trickle of angels in triumph down to the devils in Hell in torment. This sort of thing, you get me? Well, the priest did everything in his power to make sure the money didn’t get there in time, to fuck up the instructions. He tried in every way to fuck Mikey over. But see, this priest forgot. A lot of people do.
A lot of people in important positions forget, while they are being managerial and caught up in the technicalities, that the people they are stepping on and fucking with are artists. The ones who can never get paid and can never get respect. Those are artists and we are immortal. I throw this out as a warning to all who would listen. When you come for us, no matter what tribe we are from, be we builders, painters, poets, or novelists, remember. Take this with you when you talk to an artist and you think to be an ass.
Their names were Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Palkstad, and they worked at Slinger Middle School in the eighties. Their names are printed right here. Just like the priest Mikey painted on the back wall of that chapel bent over on the bottom getting his ass whipped by a demon.
We are immortal. We work in absolutes. And me and my people do not forget.
I cried again. I swore I would not. I swore it. But when Palkstad shamed me in front of the entire class and chuckled about it, I wept. I even begged. Because I was broken, my mind shattered. They were worse than bullies. They were bullies in an authority position. They had signed on to teach me and prepare me for the world and they were doing their level best to destroy me. I walked out of that class and went straight to Island.
“And now to Jenkins,” she said. She snapped her gum and laughed. “He is going to be worse.”
“He is always so much worse.”
“Because it is both of them.”
“It is. It is both of them.”
“Two assholes and Brown without his coat. No Joe, not to them. Just Brown and his bare back.” She looked at me with her fake eyelashes and smiled. “You pissed yet?”
I looked at my fists and I was pissed. “I’m very pissed.”
“Make a plan. Get it done. But do it fast,” Island said. “They are winning and you can’t take much more of this.”
Ruffle walked right up to me. She didn’t even look at Island.
“You’re walking me to my class,” she said.
“I can’t, I—”
“Come on, Joe,” Grr said. “It’s time.”
They were both there. The two most powerful kids in the school. They had come for me and I knew why.
I looked up at Island and she smiled and waved. I joined Grr and Ruffle and we walked.
“Can you look at her please?” Grr said.
“Who?” I said.
“Your girlfriend, you know, the pretty girl walking next to you. Can you look her in the eye? Maybe talk to her?”
“Hi, I’m sorry,” I said to Ruffle, but I didn’t look her in the eye. I looked at her chin. It was perfect and pointed just like I thought I liked them. Her hair was big, blonde, and glam, her eyelids painted blue. Her jacket was a leopard print with faux black fur wrapped around the wrists and the collar. She was a goddess, and I knew what I thought we both knew: I was unworthy. I was sure of it. She knew it, too, she had to. She was just too nice a girl to tell me.
“Hold her hand,” Grr said.
“Why?” Grr snapped. “She is my best friend and you are making her miserable.”
Ruffle looked at her feet. I had written her every type of letter except the break up kind. I had talked to her for hours each night, telling her stories, telling her about my life and betraying the inner workings of the mind of Artist. But when she looked up at me, I could see she was not happy.
Chain. Check. She was wearing it.
I was wearing mine, though it had only been two days and it was beginning to tarnish.
“Hold her hand right now,” Grr said, pointing.
But I couldn’t. I was a street rat from the gutter. How could I ever touch a Pegasus?
I walked back to Jenkins late, and there was hell to pay. As I entered, I saw Island sitting on the stairs outside of Jenkins’ room.
“You need a plan, Mr. Brown.”
I had nothing. I got tore into. The man had all but stopped teaching anything. The other kids were witnesses and nothing else. Both teachers worked to hammer the worst emotions they could get out of me. I wept.
X met me at lunch. He held up her break up note and scowled. “Fuck her,” he said.
I didn’t have to, but I decided to read it. It didn’t make sense. So, a half an hour after sunset, I called her.
“What happened?” I said. She knew I was crying, so she started, too.
“I’m in love,” she said.
“With another boy?”
“Who? Just tell me his name. I will be cool, just don’t let it be Marshmallow.”
“His name is Jesse,” she whispered. “I love him dearly, and I talk to him every night. He says the most amazing, beautiful, mind-blowing things, and he tells me in every way that he loves me. I go to sleep in bliss and I wake up so excited to see him. I want to hold his hand and kiss him, maybe, I don’t know, maybe if Grr thinks. And I want him to laugh with me, and I want to look into his eyes when he says the amazing things that he says to me, and I want nothing more than to be next to, and with, the boy I love.”
“I’m right here,” I sobbed.
“Yeah, you are. In a bathtub, with me. Telling me how much you love me. And I know you do. But I can’t live in a bathroom with you anymore. I am tired of my love life being stuffed in a tub.”
“Do you have another guy you want?”
“No, asshole. I am not over Jesse. Tomorrow I will see G.I. Joe, in his jacket and his wild hair and his hunched shoulders, and I will watch him cry like I do every day, but I know that Jesse would not take that. Not the one here with me right now. He would know how to deal with those monsters. Joe doesn’t. He is a shell of a boy compared to the immense power of Jesse. But he is what I get.”
“Don’t leave me,” I sobbed.
“I can’t leave you. I never met you.”
I went upstairs and I cried. I wept. I let it out. Then, about nine at night, I got on the phone again. I saw Island’s face smiling at me. See, in my pain, I had finally hatched a plan. I just needed to make two collect calls.
The high schoolers liked me, so they didn’t mind when I hid in their bathroom before school. Me and X went straight from the bus, hiding in a cloud of kids much bigger than us, walking in the midst of giants until we got there. We waited in the bathroom until the bell called the beginning of school.
Then, we moved. We moved across the building into the middle school halls, to our lockers, to exchange our books while everyone else was in class. Then we moved to the upstairs bathroom, as close to Jenkins’ room as we could get. No teacher had seen us. No one in our first hour classes had laid an eye to us. No one knew. X had decided to keep me company, because I had a plan. We sat in the stalls next to each other.
“You’re scratching your balls,” X said with a laugh.
“Fuck you,” Shadow snapped. “Why does it have to itch so much? This can’t be normal. Something is wrong.”
“I’m scratching, too. What can I tell you? I talked to my brother. He said that when you get your body hair, it itches all the time. It’s normal.”
“Not this bad,” I said. “How is your chest?”
“My chest doesn’t itch,” X said. “Does yours?”
“All the time,” I said.
When the bell rang again, we waited. First hour was over. We waited until the warning bell sounded for second hour, then we came out. X ran. He had to get to the other side of the school before the last bell. I walked.
When I stepped around the corner, I saw Island. She smiled. “I thought you were here,” she said. The second hour bell rang and she laughed. “Thought you might be hiding, but you’re not. You have a plan.”
I stopped, sat on the stairs between Palkstad’s and Jenkins’ rooms, and I waited for the inevitable. When Palkstad stepped into the hallway on his way to interrupt Jenkins’ class, I laughed.
Island laughed but he didn’t hear her. No one ever did.
“Jesse, you are here,” Palkstad said. He looked shaken.
I grinned at him.
“I don’t want to get in your way. Go in there,” I said, pointing to Jenkins’ room, “and when you get in there, you tell your friend to join you, and you two come out here and deal with me.”
Island laughed. I looked up at her and winked.
Palkstad couldn’t say a thing. He was unmanned by my confidence. See, Shadow was pissed. He had lost Ruffle. He had lost himself. He had lost every battle since Malice had stuck a blade in him, and he was ready this time. This was his moment.
When they both stepped into the hall, they looked furious.
“Like my jacket?” Shadow said, fluffing the collar.
“I’m going to write him up,” Palkstad said.
“Skipping first hour, that will get him detention. And I am going to write him up for being late,” Jenkins said. “Then I am going to rip that jacket off of him.”
“Poor,” Shadow said.
The two teachers looked at each other, then to him.
“See, me and my family, we are dirt poor. Have been for a while. They don’t have the money to buy me a coat that fits, so my uncle gave me this one.”
“And you disrespect the memory of our friends who died in ’Nam.”
“It’s called Vietnam. If you weren’t there, my great uncle, who was, prefers if you say Vietnam. Where were you?”
They looked at each other and they saw it then. I was the darkness of the mind. I was the one who would never balk. I was the indestructible, unbeatable criminal, and I was spitting in the face of authority. I had my banner in the air, and I stared at both of them as I stood.
“See, it was muddy. My great uncle told me that. So while your friends were dying in the mud, calling for anyone who would listen—I only ask because last night, when I called my uncle to tell him about you, he wanted to know—when your friends and his were dying in the mud, where were you?”
They froze. Both men wanted to run. They looked at each other for answers, but none were coming. They were in the dark now. They were staring in the face of the Street Rat. They were looking at Billy’s Boy now, and he was not even close to stopping.
Shadow stepped closer and they stepped back.
“My great uncle was in that mud. My Uncle Wrath volunteered to be.”
“We understand if you want to wear—”
“Agent orange, my great uncle has agent orange. You know, the one who sent this jacket to me. The jacket he wanted me to wear. That one. He has agent orange. Made him real sick. But my Uncle Wrath has a nice truck, and he will stop by to get my great uncle on the way up here.”
Shadow looked past them to see Island grinning and snapping her gum.
“He said he will drive up here in his nice truck just to beat you within an inch of your fucking life if you ever speak to me about this jacket again. See, my uncles are warriors, not teachers. They fought, they didn’t go to college until they were out of the war. And if you ever fuck with me again, they are coming. They are going to hunt you down and they are going to do what warriors do.”
Shadow snatched his bag up off the ground and winked at Island. She clapped in a silent hall and Shadow went to class.
He had finally won one. His losing streak was broken.
And his Bonnie was on the way.