Chapter 1: Richie
When I was in seventh grade I did not understand the things that came out of my mouth. Of course I'm a year older now, and a lot happened last year — and that's what this story is about — but sometimes I think back and I just cringe.
I wanted people to say, "Hey, Russell! Sit with us!" But I'd open my mouth and what would come out would be loud and clanky and wrong. And they would give me that quick, flat, puzzled stare that is the stock weapon of the cool seventh grader and seems to ask, "What species are you, exactly?" And I would go away thinking I was hopeless. I just wished that once I could say the right thing — but next chance I had with somebody important my words would pop out clanky and loud and I would want to run my head into a wall. I'd wonder, What happened to me?
Basically, when seventh grade started I found out I was out. It was like everyone else took a secret summer course in how to act, what to say, and what groups to be in, and I never found out about it. Maybe they didn't tell me on purpose. Maybe they thought it'd be fun to see how out of it I could get. See how you could start to think? But the truth is, nobody thought much about me at all back then. I wasn't the type anybody paid attention to — not before all this started happening.
So I would go home from school by myself. I was riding my bike the particular day when this thing occurred that pretty much captures what I'm talking about: my having had this talent, just then in my life, for saying an incredibly wrong thing to exactly the person I should never, ever have said it to.
I was taking my time, that afternoon. I had nowhere special to go. My mom doesn't get home till about five-thirty, later if she has to go to the store. And I liked to dawdle along. I mean, after a whole day of being herded — having to go here, sit there, and rush with the crowds to the next class before the bell rings and you're late again — why not take your own time when you can? That's what I did, as soon as I could get away from school.
Our school is called Parkland Middle School, and it's on the corner of School and Union streets. You can look up Union and see the downtown stores. But school lets out on School Street, around the corner, where everyone crowds out the big side doors and the buses pull up, and the parents' cars wait behind the buses in a long time.
If you're going downtown after school, or if you need to go through town to get home like I do, most people head up Union. But I usually left the crowds (where nobody was waiting for me anyway) and went up a shady side lane called Chamber Street. I'd tell myself I liked going my own way. I mean, everybody else in seventh grade had to go everywhere with their friends—they'd walk in their little cliques through the halls, they'd eat together in the cafeteria, and they'd head home (or wherever they went) together after school. But why attach yourself to the same people every day, with everybody gabbling like a bunch of baby ducks? I didn't mind going by myself, really. Not that much.
Chamber Street leads to the police department. It's a faded brick building, and behind it is the old town parking lot, and across that is the back of Convenience Farms.
Convenience Farms isn't a farm, of course — it's a squat white store with a red plastic roof. It's easily the ugliest building in our downtown, and it has all kinds of good junky food inside. I coasted my bike in from the parking lot and leaned it against the side of the building, and went in to get my root beer.
That's what I always got after school back then, a root beer. My mom gave me $1.10 each morning so I could get one. "There's for your treat," she'd say. (I don't have a dad. He died when I was too young to know. I wouldn't mind having a dad, but I don't.)
I always got a twenty-ounce A&W, in the plastic bottle with the white cap. (I've tried them all. It's the root beeriest!) When I came out of the store with my bottle this eighth grader, Richie Tucker, was leaning against the side of the building, and my bike was lying sprawled on the pavement.
Richie Tucker. Whoa. Now he was someone you stayed away from. If you were going somewhere and Richie Tucker was hanging around and he tried to catch your eye, you just didn't look at him. Even I knew that.
But here — I suddenly realized — here was one person who didn't have to be in a group with anybody. Probably nobody was cool enough, or strange or scary enough, to hang around with Richie Tucker, anyway.
So I looked at him. He had on this black army jacket, with his hands shoved in the big side pockets. I was thinking maybe I could get a jacket like that, I was wondering where you could buy one, when Richie turned his head and looked at me.
"Is that thing yours?" he asked softly, motioning his head toward the sprawled bike.
"It was in my way."
"That piece of crap you left there." Richie said this softly and earnestly, nodding at me like we were two very concerned citizens. "It was in my way." He put his hands on his hips. "What are you going to do about it? Hmm?"
So I bent over, picked up my bike, and — okay, this was a mistake — shook my finger at it.
"Bad bike," I said. "Bad bike! Don't ever do that again!"
See what I mean? Was that stupid?
Richie jerked forward like he was coming at me; I hopped on the bike and started pedaling. I nearly dropped the root beer as I rode, a little too fast, up Union Street to get home.
But then for the next couple of days I kept thinking about that black jacket. I wanted to get one. I looked in the Yellow Pages and found an army-navy store, about half an hour away. I could ask my mom to take me, maybe on Saturday. I could tell her I needed it.
Meanwhile, I guess Richie was watching how I went home.
Two days after the incident at Convenience Farms, I was walking home after school. Just this side of the police station there's a narrow, bumpy little driveway. It connects to the parking lot behind the police building, but it isn't the main way into the lot, and hardly anyone uses it. It's shadowed by a line of trees on one side and a windowless brick wall of the police building on the other. I was halfway up the driveway when Richie stepped out from the trees.
He moved to block my way, and smiled. A prickling crackled at the back of my neck. I saw his fist pull back and I wanted to say, No, please! I didn't mean to, but I just watched his fist drive into my stomach.
I couldn't breathe! I made this panicky hreek! hreek! sound, trying to get air. I crumpled up and my heart was pounding and I was shaking all over. Richie grabbed my chin and yanked my face up.
"Nobody mocks me," he said. "You understand? Nobody!"
I went, "Hreek."
Richie stood up and crossed his arms.
"I guess you are nobody," he said. "I guess that's you, huh?" One tear tipped and fell down my face. Richie's eyes lit up, and he leaned in really close.
"Aw — you got to cry, little boy? Are you a little crying nobody?" I turned my face away. He grabbed it and yanked it back.
"Let me tell you how it is, little boy. This is not over, okay? This is never over. Every time you turn around—every time you think the coast is clear — you better be watching for me. Okay, little boy? Because you're mine now. You are mine. And every time you think you're not …"
He jerked his fist back; I grabbed my stomach. Just like that.
He stood up. "Yeah," he said, and smiled. "Just like that."
And then he was gone.