Pistachio nuts littered the thin blue vinyl covering of the table. Salt and dust collected on the pads of Brendan’s fingers. He cracked each nut with excessive force, letting the splintered shells fall idly from his hands. Not that he was paying any attention to them. His gaze was focused on the seat opposite his at the flimsy wooden table, the circular kind with collapsible legs which all high schools seem to have in abundance.
When Brendan did blink, it was quick and crisp. His jaw muscles oscillated, slackening and tightening as he clenched his teeth involuntarily. His hair, which had receded noticeably in the ten years since he last sat in that cafeteria, was much thinner than his former classmates would have recalled, if they cared to. His slightly bulbous skull, however, was the same, as was his scrawny, underfed frame, whose lack of shape was emphasized by the ill-suited white button-down he wore. The sleeves were too long. The body hung loosely over his, making it seem as though he had never left the uncomfortable puberty he had once inhabited.
The recipient of his attention was one Shaun Kinney. In high school, Shaun and Brendan occupied polar ends of the popularity gradient.
Shaun had maintained an even six feet since ninth grade. His prowess on the basketball court, where he played starting center four years in a row, was almost outmatched by his abilities in every other niche that high school students were shepherded into. Unusual for an athlete, he was also a star student, never faltering, as far as Brendan knew, below a three-point-five grade-point average. If this wasn’t enough, he was an accomplished musician, sitting first chair in the band as a saxophonist; a saxophone coincidentally being the instrument which every girl at Fairmeadows High School agreed was the hottest instrument to play. And though not his main interest, he excelled in the drama club, securing a lead role through every musical in his four years, and being given, towards his senior years, generous vocal parts, which he belted out in perfect pitch to the swooning of every high school girl, and some of the boys.
Brendan was a wretch of a student. His teachers, if asked, would have described him as “forgettable”, and each, in the privacy of their homes, holding another misprinted abomination of a Brendan Rossi essay, would admit to themselves that the kid was simply of too little substance to have any lasting imprint. The only impression he ever made on the students and teachers at Fairmeadows was the impotent anger he displayed at being the target of several pranks by the more popular boys of the school, incidentally headed by Shaun himself. Perhaps he was best remembered for the time he had knocked himself out head-butting his locker after finding its contents drenched in thirty cartons of milk poured into the ventilation slats. Or maybe the Brendan everyone knew was the boy found outside on a cold March morning, sobbing and swearing incoherent vengeance as he hung ten feet off the ground on the flagpole. They used duct tape to make sure his underwear was not torn by the force.
Shaun Kinney was the incarnate pride of the school. Any adult he met held praise for him normally reserved for a decorated war hero or the Pope. And he knew it. So, the natural arrangement was to keep them from realizing he was the center of the operations aimed at breaking Brendan Rossi, body and spirit. Shaun and his friends, who were at least intelligent enough to support Shaun’s “darling boy” ruse in the company of an adult, saw in Brendan a thin beam of hope encapsulated in dog shit. The kid had no reason to be in anything less than continual turmoil, and Shaun and his group saw it as their God-given duty to put him there.
The single, brief moment elation he felt then came from the only girlfriend he ever had, a chunky girl named Tessa. Tessa was plain-faced, and smelled something of old pipework, but her eyes, kelly-green, had an opiate effect on Brendan. He loved Tessa, but he told her they couldn’t be seen together. Not because he was ashamed. If anyone found out, Brendan knew Tessa would be crucified by association.
Brendan couldn’t keep the ghost of a smile off his face, though. The exhilaration was too much. Try as he might, he couldn’t help entering another daydream about Tessa in class. Realizing the happiness he openly showcased, he would cover back up in case someone noticed.
Shaun didn’t take the conventional route to induce Brendan’s disintegration. He didn’t round up scores of kids to taunt the two any time they were seen together, in the hopes that they would decide it was best never to see one another again.
Instead, he began to pay Tessa generous attention, flirting with her with the delicacy refined from years of practice. As she was leaving lunch, which she had alone, he sidled up to her, painting himself as one of Brendan’s closest confidantes, a gentle friend who would look out for her.
It didn’t take long for her to buckle under the weight of his affections. In less than two weeks since Brendan and Tessa consummated, she was seen walking through the school doors with Shaun, his arm around her ample waist. Brendan left during lunch that day. Skulking across the parking lot towards his house, he caught the figures of Shaun and Tessa against the janitor’s shed, locked at the lips. Shaun had his hand down the front of Tessa’s tie-dye sweatpants. Brendan might have killed himself then. He might have done a lot of things. He wanted to run inside, pull the fire alarm, bring the whole school, teachers, firefighters, mayor and scream ‘LOOK, LOOK WHAT HE’S DONE.”
Next Monday Tessa was gone. Over the weekend, Shaun dumped her with a side mention that one of her eyes sometimes didn’t point in the same direction as the other. Almost immediately after, she was terrorized by the popular female clique that was usually seen around Shaun and his group. They called her cell phone dozens of times, the calls stretching from jeers of “you fat fucking slut” and “hang yourself ugly cunt” to threats on her life. She had snapped the phone in half on Saturday night, and on Sunday night she hid alone in her house when two cars full of them stopped outside and hurled rocks at the windows. Two windows shattered by the end of it, and Tessa parents came home to a sobbing daughter in the hall closet and ‘DIE FUCKING WHORE’ spray-painted across the garage door.
By Wednesday the school seemed to know ‘that Tessa girl’ had changed school districts. No one much heard about her after that.
The last time Brendan saw Shaun (until today) was graduation day. He was standing away from the swarm of kids in bright red gowns on the fifty-yard line of the football field. Hundreds of parents milled through the crowd, snapping pictures of groups of three with arms around each other’s shoulders, or pairs of girls who had been friends since infanthood.
Brendan stood alone, cap in one hand, his other holding his gown in the back. Before they had all marched out together, he was quietly assaulted by two of Shaun’s accomplices. One came up from behind and reached around his throat with an arm, while the second slit his gown down the back with a pair of scissors from the art room. They caught his belt with it, severing the cheap leather. He threw the belt in the garbage and spent the next two hours holding the back of his pants, looking like he had just shit himself.
As he looked across that field, he saw Shaun amidst a sea of the basketball team, all thirty or so pointing a finger to the sky. They had won the state championship only five days prior. Shaun caught Brendan’s eye. He winked and raised his finger to Brendan in a gun. Taking aim, he shot.
The climate of his youth set a precedent for his subsequent years. He didn’t go to college. That summer, he found a job at a telemarketing agency. He had no ambitions other than to get through life without life noticing. After the first year, he received a raise to ten dollars an hour. Nine years, a few dozen misshapen starch white shirts, and zero girlfriends later, Brendan opened a faux-embroidered letter asking him to cordially RSVP to Fairmeadows High School Class of ’05 ten-year reunion.
The stiff casing around his life cracked. The dried emotion he held rehydrated, and he felt a burning sensation he could not describe. He had not heard of Shaun in ten years. Could there, might there be just one chance that Shaun’s life did not turn out the way he and everyone else expected? Was there even an iota of possibility in going to that reunion and seeing Shaun there, heaped with misfortune, seeing him robbed of that confident little spark in his eye, seeing a burned out bulb and the most mild surprise in its place? Brendan could watch Shaun cringe when he remembered the prospect he had in that building, trembling as he was bombarded by the memories of laughter and enthusiasm and contentment. He could approach Shaun, spin him around and whisper, “how does it feel?”
He filled out the RSVP feverishly, hurrying from his apartment to find a mailbox.
At the reunion, he crackled with anticipation. He had convinced himself he would find Shaun in tatters, looking for charity, and maybe, a friend. Brendan could stamp him out easily. But here he sat. At a royal blue vinyl covered table in a high school cafeteria that he had forgotten except for the occasional nightmare, staring at the perfect physical specimen that was Shaun Kinney.
Brendan’s hearing faded in and out as nausea pulsed through his midsection. Through a haze, he could see Shaun flash a glittering smile as he related to the audience gathered around him the potential of investing in aircraft carrier technology. Brendan saw few things. A custom-tailored iron gray suit befitting the broad, well-exercised shoulders. The cheekbones which had become more dazzling with age. The tousled haircut razor-perfect around the edges. He had one hand on the shoulder of his wife, Leira, a Slovenian ambassador’s daughter, and, Joshua mentioned, a one time model for Sports Illustrated. His other hand gesticulated luxuriously as he finished, judging by the laughter of the crowd, his story about receiving a personal apology from the president of Southwest Airlines after being stopped briefly in Bolivia with a number of expensive and vaguely acquired traditional native headdresses. “I mean, I know I shouldn’t have had the damn things in the first place, and I was ready to give them up, but before I know it I’m being flown to San Diego in Mr. Saviori’s personal Concord. And he couldn’t have been more polite.”
Brendan could taste copper. He had bitten his tongue too hard on the last go. He felt around in his mouth in case the tip came off. Finding nothing, he swallowed the excess blood. No one sat around him. The seats had been pulled toward Shaun like planets to a heavy sun. Brendan had to drag his sleeve across his chin regularly to keep the sweat from collecting there and hanging in fat droplets.
He had been lost in thought. When his eyes shifted back into focus, Shaun and the gathering were staring at him. He realized how alone he was on that side of the table. Shaun’s eyebrows were drawn up, waiting.
“Hm-what?” Brendan said, mucus crackling in his throat. “What?”
“I said,” Shaun repeated easily, “what have you been doing, Brendan?”
The cafeteria seemed to descend into silence. Certainly, everyone in the vicinity was quiet, expectant.
“Finance? Tech?” Shaun inquired.
“Uh…marketing,” muttered Brendan.
“Oh? What industry?” The question seemed to be asked by them all, every eye hanging on his reply.
Brendan drew in air. “Telemarketing.” He winced as though expecting a blow. Nobody said a word. A few hands reached up to faces to cover smirks. Someone walked away.
Suddenly a hot flush swept through him, humiliation and shame and, fury.
Shaun raised his eyebrows again. His fingers curled gently on his wife’s shoulder. Brendan sat with his hands on his lap, the dull thud of final defeat and a grinding anguish heavy in his stomach.
But Shaun only said, “Oh…well…there’s good money in that, I hear.”
Brendan, however, had long since ceased to hear. Fresh blood filled his mouth as his teeth sank slowly into his tongue. He barely noticed he was beginning to sever it. His eyes burned from the pain, but Brendan only noticed the strange cold sensation began to finger its way down his back.
What Brendan picked up, after Shaun’s subject change, was him saying, “Let’s see if I can still find the bathroom!” to gratuitous chuckles.
Brendan suddenly needed to piss.
He walked dazedly through the locker-lined hallway, which, when he came in, had seemed so much smaller than when he walked through them every day for four years, but now appeared in their original massive, ominous form. He could hear the water running as he drew near.
Shaun was loosening his tie when Brendan walked in. Shaun turned to him. “Oh,” he said, surprised. “Hey, Brendan…”
Brendan moved slowly, his mouth hanging open slightly, the lemon-sterile air of the bathroom drying his throat.
“Listen,” said Shaun. “I wanted to apologize for putting you on the spot out there. I didn’t mean to embarrass you or anything.”
Brendan stopped an arm’s length away. “You didn’t embarrass,” he said mechanically.
“Oh…well, regardless, I also…I want to apologize for being such a piece of shit in high school.” Shaun had his hands in his pockets. His upper lip curled under his teeth.
“It was really fucked up some of the…some of the stuff we did. You didn’t deserve that.” Shaun opened his mouth as if to say something else. Brendan sucked down some of his pooling blood. The skin on his arms crinkled uncomfortably. He could see Shaun’s eyes, could see where that old malice had once been. It was missing, lying dormant or gone entirely. There was just sadness, above a weak smile.
Shaun’s hand was out, close to his own. Brendan took it automatically.
The smile painted on Shaun’s face became genuine. He snorted a small, clean laugh. They stood there, shaking hands, once, twice. Brendan felt the cool dry of Shaun’s hand. The ring pressed into his palm. Brendan’s lip began to quiver.
“Brendan, hey, are you all right?” Shaun asked suddenly, not entirely sure what was happening. He put his arm on Brendan, whose tremors reached from his face to his shoulders, his torso, under that ill-fitting shirt, quaking. Brendan’s grip seized up.
“Ah, hey, Brendan. Stop th-” Shaun, distracted by the sudden pain in his hand, pulled away. Brendan, still holding on, was propelled into life.
He grabbed a fistful of Shaun’s hair. Shaun managed no more than a startled “HA-” before Brendan swung him headlong into the stall door. He crashed into it, banging it open and nearly closed again as he fell into the toilet face first.
The water in the toilet became a dyed pink as rich blood spouted from Shaun’s mouth into the basin. Some of his teeth pinged along the floor. Shaun squealed, a man’s howl and a boy’s whimper, as he crashed beside the bowl. The arms of his suit jackets stuck to the caked urine on the floor like sap. The greasy lemon smell was overpowering.
Shaun swung for a handle to pull himself up, but found only the rim of the toilet slick with blood. He slipped, crumpled into a sitting position, and had time to see Brendan over him in the stall before stars exploded behind his eyelids. Shaun’s hands were against Brendan’s face as he heaved him up. He could only offer light slaps to Brendan’s pale, bloodless cheeks. Above the cheeks, the eyes registered one part uninhibited joy, one part irrevocable suffering. The years of developing and maintaining muscular perfection were useless to Shaun against the skinny washed out assailant who he had forty pounds on. His immobilized shock was no match for Brendan’s resolve, his power.
Brendan threw Shaun against the row of sinks. Shaun ran to keep his feet under him, keep himself from going down again. His forehead connected with the mirror, sending jagged splits through the glass in a spiderweb pattern. He reeled back, stumbled over his legs, was caught by Brendan in a trust-fall. He made another odd sound, an open-throated bellow as his abdomen spasmed in fear, and jerked towards the door, which led to outside, and safety, and ease.
Brendan’s foot landed in the small of his back. Weak with helplessness, he spilled along the tiles, his kneeling weight not nearly enough to open the door. Before he understood what was happening, the gasoline green door, swinging gently, was receding away from him, shrinking as he felt the click of the tiles under his buttocks. He was turned, facing the cool white of another toilet, free of blood and teeth and orange piss-marks. When he coughed, flecks of red dotted the clear water, spinning lucidly. It reminded him of tie-dye. It reminded him of a pair of sweatpants.
“Oh my God! Wait, Brendan, no-”
He was forced under, the cold water lapping at his head, his lips against the porcelain bottom. His jagged teeth made his gums scream in pain. Exhausted lungs began heaving in great gulps of water. He struggled, reaching for the toilet handle. Brendan caught his arms, putting him in a full nelson, the bloody water now complemented with oil from the mousse in his hair.
Brendan could feel he had bitten the tip of his tongue off. It throbbed pathetically. For some reason, he found that unlocking his arms from Shaun’s and bringing the heavy toilet seat down on that neck over and over was actually quite soothing.
Shaun hung limp at the bowl. Purple blood thick like fructose dribbled from his neck to the floor. His hands were palm-up by his sides, the weight of his body resting on his neck which no longer gurgled, sputtered.
Brendan straightened up. The cold, the burning, the pulsing itch, all were muted now. His heartbeat was steady, a migraine blooming behind his brow. He grabbed a paper towel and spit clotted blood. The nauseating hum of a crowd came in from behind the bathroom door.
He moved towards it, finding it remarkably easier to open than when he came in before. He seemed to take up more space in the hallway now. His head was closer to the ceiling than it had ever been. His long strides made him feel capable. Commanding. He moved past the open doors of the cafeteria leisurely. No one noticed the blood-soaked man. He walked to the double doors of the entrance, out into a breezy May night. Stopped, suddenly. He seemed to deliberate to himself, smiled like he had almost forgotten to cash a good lottery ticket. Walking back inside, he found the fire alarm behind the front desk. He leaned over it easily, breaking the plastic bar and pulling the handle.
As the alarm sounded, he left the building, breathing the fresh, earthy wind that blew on Spring nights. His car was at the other end of the lot. Just fine, he thought, unbuttoning his cuffs. It was a good night for a walk.
Credit: Colin’s Home for the Damned
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