The hardest part of the school day for Craig, the absolute most difficult part, was not the bustle and noise of all the people around him. It wasn't the school work, or the feeling of being naked and vulnerable without his gun and knife. It wasn't even the mindless shuffling to and fro like cattle being herded, or the fact that he had absolutely no idea what his locker combination had been, and had to go to the office to retrieve it.
It was being told what to do.
“Don't run,” “you need a hall pass,” “sit here,” “quiet down,” “speak up,” “stand in line,” “wait,” “go.” For a boy used to setting his own priorities and making his own schedule, Craig found this grating. Downright stifling in fact. He found himself biting his tongue more than once to silence a sarcastic comment. At one point he let slip a quiet and sarcastic, “By Your Command, My Master.” Not quiet enough, judging from the chuckling amusement of his nearby classmates. That brought a small smile to his face. He had never, ever said anything to make a group of people around him laugh. It was an odd feeling.
That was another thing. He was having trouble figuring out how to relate. All these people. Dozens, hundreds of people. It was intimidating and noisy and chaotic and frightening and wonderful. But it was mostly overwhelming.
He found himself wanting, needing, a break by the time he finished his lunch. He was desperate to escape outside for a few minutes and find someplace quiet to sit and think and try to figure out what the hell was going on. And what to do next.
Craig exited the school and was walking across the compound towards the grass and trees beyond. A nearby voice yelled past him, “Andrew, over here!”
Craig looked up. He was passing very near the owner of the voice, a boy he recognized from a year ago. Or yesterday, depending on how you looked at it. The intended target of basketball boy's pass in the hallway a lifetime ago.
Basketball boy, or Andrew as the other boy's yell reminded him, fired the basketball towards his friend. Maybe Andrew was just not very accurate, or maybe there was more to it than that, but once again the pass was slightly off target. Once again, just like a year ago, or maybe yesterday, the ball came towards Craig's stomach at high speed.
What happened next however was very different than before.
Craig wasn't really thinking about it. It's not like he had time to process anything. His brain was still half fogged over and buzzing madly with the events of the day. Craig's hands seemed to know what to do though. They caught the ball easily and he automatically dribbled it twice before turning halfway and seeing the basket twenty feet away. He gauged the distance, raised his hands and shot. The ball arced gracefully up and into the basket.
Swish. Nothing but net.
A long ago remembered voice repeated a long ago remembered phrase. “Hey, nice shot Kobe!”
Craig looked up and into Andrew's eyes. Andrew was looking back at him. With the exact same smile he remembered a long time ago from math class. This time though it didn't look sarcastic. It just looked like a smile.
Craig smiled back and waved an acknowledgment, and continued his walk to the quiet of the grass and trees.
He sat down with a tree at his back, automatically scanning the area for dangers first. He had a lot to think about. More now than before. Andrew's smile, a smile from long ago. He was an idiot. From his perspective now, he could see what was obvious. What he had been blind to before. Andrew's comments, way back and twenty four hours ago, weren't rude, they were just friendly teasing. He hadn't been snidely sarcastic, he'd been trying to engage in some fun back and forth jibing. His smile hadn't been condescending, it had been open and friendly. No different from what he and Joel did a hundred times a day. What a fool he'd been.
Thoughts turned and tumbled in his head as he sat and listened to the chirping of the birds above. The noise of people and traffic in the background seemed louder, more obvious, than ever before in his life. The smells were one of the things he really noticed. People smells. Industry, car exhaust, smoke, chemicals, and things he couldn't define. Metallic smells. The smell of civilization.
Despite his ruminating he didn't reach any conclusions, any closure, any real plan. Except for one.
He knew he had to get in contact with Joel. Had to. It was a driving need in his gut.
He wondered if Joel would even know who he was.
The bell rang and Craig stood up to return to the school building. His hand, for the twentieth time the day, moved to his hip to adjust his holster and grabbed nothing but denim. He let his hand drop and walked inside, his brow furrowed in thought.
Gym class was next.
Craig hated gym class. He had always hated it. He hated watching everyone do things he couldn't do. He hated watching them watch him, and feeling small and inadequate. He hated the feeling of isolation.
Maybe it was the continued shock of the day, or maybe it was simply because of, well, everything, but he didn't feel quite the same about that today as he walked into the locker room.
Craig walked up to his locker and again shook his head in frustration. He turned and found the coach, who had to open a file cabinet and find his name to tell him what his gym locker combination was. The coach barked and grumbled at this great imposition and Craig knew he would've cowered at it before. Now, however, he allowed the tiniest smile to cross his lips as the coach griped. The coach caught his look and, wonder of wonders, smiled back slightly before ordering him to get changed, and fast.
Craig had his locker opened and was pulling out his gym clothes, wondering why in the hell he hadn't brought them home to be washed before now. Yuck.
He had his t-shirt off when Andrew walked into the locker room and almost right next to him.
“Hey Craig. Nice shot out there after lunch.” His voice seemed a bit tentative.
Craig understood why. His reaction yesterday must've seemed awfully rude and dismissive. He turned to look at Andrew and gave him a smile. “Thanks Andrew. Just lucky I think.”
Andrew's smile increased in wattage tenfold. You'd think Craig had just handed him the keys to a new car or something.
“So where were you yesterday? I thought you might show up for basketball tryouts.” said Andrew.
Craig had to work to remember what had happened 'yesterday.' Then he tried to think of what to say. Just the truth seemed safest. Or a piece of it. He shrugged, “Yeah, I really should have shown up I think, but, I just didn't feel up to it.”
“Well, maybe you're in luck. It turned out half the kids that wanted to go couldn't make it because Coach forgot it was also alternate picture day, and the kids who missed the last one or needed to get re-shoots had to go to that. He scheduled another tryout for Friday.” Andrew's eye's seemed to drop slightly before moving back up and looking into Craig's eyes again.
“Maybe I'll just have to go on Friday then.” Craig pulled his jeans off and grabbed his gym shorts. No jock thankfully, this school didn't require them, except for participation in certain sports.
Andrew's eyes dropped again, then looked over Craig's body, and then widened. “Jesus, where'd you get those scars!?”
Craig looked down at his legs and his torso. “Which one?”
“Well, umm, all of 'em I guess.”
“Well, let's see.” Craig pointed, “This one was from a dog, this one came from a piece of wood that shot out from the chainsaw, this one was from a cougar,” he moved up to his arms and continued the pointing, “this one was from a reciprocating saw...”
“Umm, dude. You're shitting me, right?” Andrew's eyes were wide, and wary like he was wondering if he was the butt of a joke.
Craig just smiled and shook his head sadly. “No. I wish I was. I'd tell you about it but you'd never believe me.” He watched Andrew's face for a second. “Maybe I will tell you sometime, who knows?”
Andrew looked back into Craig's eyes. “I'd like that.”
Craig pulled his gym shorts on and tied his shoes. “Okay. After class give me your phone number.”
“Okay, I will. But, at least tell me what happened to the cougar. And the dog.”
“Well, lemme think, I shot the dog, no, wait, those were different ones, I kicked him in the windpipe and collapsed it, and he died, and Joel knifed the cougar, but I almost had my knife out.”
Andrew was looking at him with an absolutely aghast look. “Umm, dude. Like, what are you? Some kind of superkid?”
Craig laughed. He found Andrew real easy to talk to. “No, no, most definitely not a superkid. Just a kid. C'mon, we're going to be late.”
They trotted outside with the rest of their classmates for a game of soccer.
It was hard waiting for class to end. As the day continued Craig felt the need to try and contact Joel become more and more urgent. He was almost desperate for some connection between today and yesterday. He was also scared what he might find out. That Joel wouldn't remember him at all because it had never happened for him.
Craig was almost thankful at this point for his scars. And, of course, for Rabble. At least they proved to him he didn't dream the whole thing up somehow.
Finally the bell rang and Craig was on his way home. The bus dropped him off and he went inside the empty house, dropping his backpack wearily before spending a few minutes playing with Rabble. He was exhausted. The day had taken an incredible emotional toll on Craig. He sat down and thought for a few minutes, Rabble doing her best to ensure she received the attention she deserved. He knew he should take her out for some exercise but he was desperate to call Joel so he decided to take care of that first.
What if Joel didn't know him, what would he do? Maybe just say, “Sorry, wrong number,” and hang up. Whatever. He'd cross that bridge when he came to it.
Craig booted up the computer and smiled a bit. One thing he really missed, almost more than some other conveniences, was the internet. Instant access to almost any knowledge. It was truly a geeky kid's dream. Well, that and internet porn. He sat down and less than a minute later had Joel's phone number in hand. There was only one Bellings listed in Elm Grove.
As Craig listened to the phone ring on the other end he found himself becoming more and more nervous. Finally he heard the receiver being picked up. “Hello?” said a woman's voice.
“Um, hello, may I speak to Joel please?” he managed to get out after a second's pause. He had been so focused on Joel it hadn't occurred to him that someone else might answer. He still wasn't used to talking to other people again, despite the day at school.
“He isn't home from school yet, but he should be here shortly. May I ask who's calling?”
“Uh, please tell him that Craig called.”
“Okay, I will. Does he know you from school?”
“Well, not exactly. We, um, we met at a birthday party.” Well, it wasn't exactly a lie.
“Okay, I'll tell him. But he'll be expected to finish his homework before he's allowed to call.”
Oh crap. He just remembered he had some too. Something else he didn't miss. “Okay, thanks ma'am. Bye.” The woman, Joel's mom he was certain, said goodbye as well, and then Craig panicked for a second. “Oh wait! Ma'am?! Hello?!”
“I don't think he has my phone number.”
“It's here on the Caller ID young man.” She must've glanced down at it. “This is long distance? Well, okay, I'll have him call.”
Craig was relieved there wasn't going to be a further interrogation. “Thanks again ma'am. Bye.”
He hung up and wondered what to do while he was waiting. He was so used to an endless stream of tasks to worry about that he felt a bit at loose ends. Finally he got out his homework and began working on that after promising Rabble a nice long walk after Joel called back.
Craig had just finished his math problems and was opening his social studies book when the phone rang. He got up so fast he knocked the chair over in his rush to get to it. “Hello?” he said, his voice sounding a bit frantic to him.
“Hello,” came the voice over the telephone. “Is Craig there?”
“This is Craig. Joel? It's me. You know who this is, right?” Oh wow, that sounded desperate.
He heard the voice on the other end let out a long relieved sigh. “Oh god Craig...what the hell is going on?”
Craig let out his own long sigh of relief before answering. But, he was feeling a bit paranoid. He had to check. “Um, tell me what happened yesterday, Joel.”
Joel must've understood what he was doing. He answered, after an aside away from the handset. “Karma, get down...” His voice came back louder into the phone, “Yesterday we were packing for the trip. You beat me at H.O.R.S.E., and I paid up.” He heard a smile in Joel's voice.
“Jesus, Joel, it's good to talk to you. I feel like I've been walking around in the twilight zone all day today.”
“When I woke up I thought I was dreaming. Then later I figured the rest of it had been a dream, but it couldn't have been. I've got the scars to prove it. And, Craig, you know what's really weird? Karma is here! And Mom and Dad are acting like he's been here since he was eight weeks old! But when I asked them where we got him from they just ignored me and changed the subject. It was weird.”
Craig answered, “I know. Rabble is here too, and my mom was exactly the same. I don't get it. It should be impossible. Later tonight I plan to spend a bit of time googling for ideas, maybe I'll find something, I don't know.”
“Craig, I'm kind of freaked out here. More than kind of. I mean, fuck, it's good to be home, and see my parents, and my friends at school. But, I dunno, it's kind of...”
“Yeah! Yeah, that's it exactly. I'm being treated like a kid. And Craig? I kinda don't feel like one anymore. At least in some ways.”
“I know Joel, I've been feeling the same way all day. Listen, we need to get together and talk. Can you get over here? Or maybe I can go there.”
“I know. I wish it were that easy. My dad wants me to help clean out the front of the shop tonight, and mom has me going shopping with her tomorrow. I guess we'll have to wait until the weekend. Is that okay? I mean, I suppose I could sneak out if I had to...”
“No. Don't do that. We just got back. Let's not mess everything up within a day. We'll just have to try and deal with all these rules and stuff again. We'll figure out something for Friday night, or maybe Saturday. Maybe I'll ask mom for a sleepover or something. And Joel? Umm, I dunno why, but, I'm feeling like things aren't maybe quite back to really normal yet. Just my gut is telling me something. Stay on guard, okay?”
“Okay, I will. I was feeling the same. Something's not right. Maybe it's just me adjusting again, but I dunno...Listen, my mom is bugging me to get off the phone, 'cause this is long distance. We can chat later on the 'net, or text. Give me your cell phone number. Geez it's nice to have those back.”
“Yeah, isn't that the truth.” He gave Joel his cell number. "Okay, talk to you soon then Joel. Bye.”
Craig hung up. He felt better. A lot better. Talking to Joel had been such a relief. He didn't feel like he was going crazy anymore, like he was in some kind of ongoing hallucination.
“Okay, Rabble, okay. Let's go,” Craig said to the impatient dog who had been licking him and bugging him during the entire phone call. Craig grabbed a leash he found hanging near the door and hooked it up and took Rabble outside for a walk.