The crumpled pages lay scattered across the desk, released from Aaron’s sweaty grip. They looked like flustered geese sailing across the oak lake that was Mrs. Nicholson’s perfectly clean desk. She looked up at him with an expectant raise of her eyebrows, her hands hovering tentatively over the pages without touching the assignment.
“My book report,” he mumbled, stacking them haphazardly so that the title page was clearly visible. She let her eyes rove the untidy script for a moment before lifting the pile gingerly in her hands, as though afraid the pages would take flight if she moved too quickly. She smoothed out the surface, her fingers fluttering in an unsure manner. She opened her mouth, closed it, and then opened it again, her arm outstretched towards the boy standing hunched in front of her.
“I’m sorry, Aaron; I can’t accept this. It was due a month ago; if you needed an extension, you should have told me,” she said, pressing the report upon him until he took it roughly in his grip. She looked at him with pity, as though expecting an explanation as to why he hadn’t passed it in on the right date - as though she wanted nothing more than to be able to grade the paper. He shrugged, the sheets clenched in his fist, feeling his face burn.
“Whatever,” he said, balling them up; he threw them in the garbage with as much vehemence as he could muster. Aaron looked at Mrs. Nicholson for a moment, her brown eyes crinkled with sympathy, and twisted back towards the door. She called after him as he stalked away, jumping up out of her patched chair to follow him.
“Aaron, wait! You’re at serious risk of failing, and I really think that you should…” she began, but he’d already reached the end of the hallway, taking long strides. He blocked out her words. She didn’t go after him, only looked after his tense frame as it disappeared through the swinging double doors.
Aaron pulled his hood over his head when his feet hit the pavement. He pulled a rumpled pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, fumbling for the nearly empty lighter in his jacket and flicking it until the end of the cigarette was glowing. He shoved the pack and the lighter away, taking a deep pull on the cigarette, hating the taste but needing the calm it offered. He was jiggling his leg and tried to stop, taking slow steps around the side of the building. He counted slowly to ten in his mind.
Yeah, I needed an extension; he thought bitterly to himself, an extension- yeah, that would’ve done the trick. He felt like punching the brick wall next to him, but held back; he’d done it once after failing his first test and he’d been just as angry about it afterwards - except then the pain in his knuckles only made him angrier. He dropped himself on the ground next to the dumpsters that flanked the back entrance of the school, balancing the cigarette between his lips.
He’d scrawled the book report last night, looking the book up quickly on the internet, jotting down a fake opinion at the bottom to round it all off nicely, throwing his name at the top for good measure, and then he’d folded it in his jeans pocket and slept with it there. He’d just wanted to try, for once in his life.
His mother had been too high to ask what he was doing when he’d left that morning, and his aunt barely knew his name at the best of times. He wasn’t even sure why he’d bothered to try; he knew he was failing the year anyways. All of his teachers had basically told him it was inevitable; his father had even told him so when he’d gone to visit him. Aaron still remembered the reek of sweat that had been emanating from his father’s unwashed body.
“You were never smart, Aaron. Just get something that’ll pay the bills; you don’t need high school - bunch of assholes anyways” he’d snorted, leaning back with his arms folded across his chest so that his muscles bulged. Aaron would’ve been impressed if he hadn’t seen those same muscles used to abuse his mother; he would’ve said something of the sort if the guard hadn’t appeared at that moment to escort his father back to his cell. The other visitors had given him sidelong glances as though even there he didn’t belong. Aaron had left the visitor’s room without saying goodbye, and he hadn’t gone back since. Prison hadn’t changed his father; if anything, it’d made Aaron see just how disgusting he was. It wasn’t a huge loss; he’d always taken care of himself anyway. He would never go back.
His mother, however, was no better. One of the reasons she hadn’t been able to defend herself when his father attacked was because she was drunk, her movements clumsy and slow; he had seen her like that countless times. His father could have lit the apartment on fire around her and she wouldn’t have reacted. Aaron suspected his mother had been nagging his father about being a lazy cheat again; Aaron didn’t know if it was true, but his father was rarely home, and when he was he reeked of sweat and alcohol. Aaron was just glad he hadn’t been home to see it – he’d been hanging out at his buddy Ryan’s house, and had gone home the next morning to find his mother gone and his father arrested. He didn’t want to end up like his father. The house had been empty and he almost hadn’t noticed the difference; the thought made him want to lie down and stay on the pavement forever.
He hoisted himself up off of the ground, digging in his back pocket until his hand came out with a little wooden slingshot. His father had given it to him when he was a little kid – when he’d been ten years old and thought it might get better – and he’d kept it ever since; not because he loved his father, but because he remembered the day as being bright and warm. It stuck out in his memory as a day when he’d been happy; he held onto it like a bird with a brightly colored stone.
They’d gone to the park, gotten ice cream, and spent an hour hanging around trees shooting at squirrels and birds when they could find them, knots in tree trunks when they couldn’t. He remembered the soft light of the sun through the trees, the sickeningly sweet strawberry ice cream, and his father’s rough laugh when he would manage to hit his target.
He pulled the elastic in the slingshot tight – he’d replaced it a couple of times over the years– and listened to the pleasant twang it made when released. He leaned forward, grabbed a few pieces of gravel scattered across the pavement, digging out little chunks of the worn black surface where he could, until he’d formed a pile of them at the toe of his sneaker. He scanned the dumpster opposite himself, the one to the right of the door, and found a particularly ugly smiley face painted in vibrant yellow paint near the top corner. He studied it for a moment; the eyes had run when they’d been freshly painted, running like fluorescent tear tracks. He pulled his eyes away.
After looking through his projectiles and finding a particularly round grey stone, he picked it up and glared at the smiley face for a moment before closing one eye, taking aim, and firing. The stone pinged off of the rusted metal, chipping an edge of the yellow paint, leaving the face intact. He avoided looking at it. He picked another stone: sight, aim, fire. One corner of the yellow mouth splintered, leaving a little white notch where the end of the smile should have been; the drawing looked slightly confused instead of menacingly cheerful. Aaron took stone after stone until one half of the smiley had been completely disfigured; the eye was missing, half the smile gone, and the interior of the face scratched and dented, with the outline fragmented: he felt it was a much more accurate portrayal of the high school life. He stood up and walked over to the dumpster, scratching off more of the smile with his ragged fingernail. There, he thought, much better.
He crawled back to his former position, gouged out a few more pieces of pavement, and took aim; this time at a word that looked like it could either be slut or slug. He closed his eye and pulled the elastic taut, aiming at the crooked s, just as someone came out of the back door. He’d let the stone fly before registering the person’s presence, and cursed softly as it flew towards the dumpster. He didn’t get a chance to say anything. The girl who’d walked out – he was looking at her now with dread – screeched as the rock grazed her knee: her tattered pink bag fell from her hands, scattering its contents across the pavement.
“Ouch! What the hell?” she said, inspecting the little red cut across her knee. Aaron was slightly pleased to see that the rock had been heading straight for its target, but kept his smile to himself as he crossed to help her collect her stuff off of the ground. She didn’t bend down to help him.
“Sorry. I didn’t see you coming,” he said, grabbing the nearest thing, a little square of plastic that had landed next to his foot: it was a dusty, broken compact full of a bright pink blush. He leaned over and passed it to her, avoiding looking at her short skirt or her tight top; she took it with a venomous expression, gathering the rest of her things off of the ground. Aaron saw that most of it was makeup with cracked, worn packaging. He looked back at her, sure he’d seen her around school but unable to put a name to the heavily made up face. He could tell she was pretty, but her eyes were covered in bright pink sparkles, heavily outlined in black, and her face looked as though it had been painted on; her shiny red nail polish was chipping. She shoved the last item back in her bag, and Aaron held out a hand imploringly as she tried to push past him.
“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you,” he said, smirking slightly at her so intensely annoyed face. She poked him roughly in the shoulder.
“Don’t laugh at me! I’m sure you’re innocent, aiming at the only person around, Mr.…?” she said, her voice sounding slightly amused, though her face betrayed nothing. She rested her hand on his chest for a moment, her thin eyebrows arched questioningly. Aaron smirked at her use of the term Mister; he wasn’t quite used to people speaking to him as anything other than troubled.
“Aaron White,” he said, accepting the long fingered hand she extended towards him. She was acting as though they were meeting over coffee to discuss business. She glared down once more at her reddened knee, then back up at him.
“Jessica Harris,” she said, and Aaron had a sudden jolt of recognition. Jessica Harris, a.k.a. the girl that had beaten the crap out of another girl the year before; Aaron remembered Ryan saying something to him about it. She’d gotten suspended – he’d heard that the other girl had insulted her mother, and in return had lost a tooth. She looked at him as though expecting him to run away. He looked at her appraisingly and took a small step closer. Her mouth twitched.
“You don’t need that stuff, you know,” Aaron said, slouching back over to his seated position, eyeing the girl with new interest. She walked over to him, toeing his leg with her scuffed high heel. Now that he looked at her, she appeared as though she’d tried to dress professionally – she was wearing a faded black pencil skirt and a slightly wrinkled, slightly small blouse covered by a cardigan.
“What?” She looked down at him enquiringly, leaning against the wall and tapping her fingernails rhythmically along a metal buckle on her purse. Aaron shrugged, waving his hand lazily towards her bag as he gathered more rocks.
“That…makeup. It’s a bit harsh,” he said, expecting a swift kick and a huffy departure; instead Jessica squatted carefully next to him, tugging on her skirt until she was seated against the wall, her shoulder rubbing his.
“I know, you jerk. I wear it for work; the boss likes me to look a bit older for the classy gentlemen that come in. I’m a waitress, though not a good one,” she cackled, naming the local restaurant where she worked; Aaron knew the sort that went there, and didn’t envy her. She grabbed a rock from his pile as he took his next shot, rolling it between her palms. Aaron managed to snag the end of the word he was aiming at and pulled another cigarette from his pocket, having dropped the last. Jessica held out her hand wordlessly; he gave her a look before passing her one and, after lighting his own, handing the lighter over in the same manner. She dropped it in his lap when she was done and he slipped it back in his pocket.
“Why are you working? We’re in high school,” he said, though he tried to put as much contempt as possible into the last two words. Jessica looked over at him, blowing a thin stream of smoke from between her colorful lips; he noticed the makeup around her eyes was smudged as though she’d been crying. She smiled and he noticed a chip in her front tooth.
“Doesn’t matter what school you’re in when your mother drinks herself half to death every night and takes your money. Plus, I’m failing, so I might as well spend my free time working; the teachers stopped being sympathetic about my situation when I punched that girl,” she said, not as though it was a pity, but just as a fact; she also didn’t seem to doubt that he would have heard of her fight. Aaron glanced over at her again before shooting another stone – she wasn’t wrong.
“Great; then I’ll see you back here next year, because I’m not going anywhere either,” he said, grinning with satisfaction as his next shot skimmed a clumsily drawn hand displaying its middle finger. Jessica smiled lazily at him, pulling hard on the cigarette like she wanted to swallow it.
“It doesn’t matter anyway; I quit my job today. The tips just aren’t enough to convince me,” she muttered, coughing. She dragged her palms across her eyelids, smearing her eye makeup over her face: it looked like shadows were pulling themselves desperately across her cheeks. She removed her threadbare black cardigan and used it to scrub viciously at her face, some of the makeup coming off, some simply moving to other parts of her skin, until she looked like a watercolor painting. She presented her face to him.
“Clean?” she asked, pushing the cardigan towards him. He grabbed it and rubbed it over a black smudge under her eye – other than that, she looked like a normal human being again. He gave her a thumbs-up and a toothy grin and she laughed. He shot another rock.
Jessica stood up, not bothering to fix her skirt as it hitched up her thighs. She dumped her purse back out on the ground, grabbing the makeup in a large fistful and turning towards Aaron.
“I’m throwing this out – unless you’re into that kind of thing?” she said with playful eyes, holding it out to him. He mockingly loaded another rock and aimed at her forehead.
“Okay!” she said, and attempted to lift the cover of the dumpster with her elbow. Aaron threw up his hands.
“Wait! Give it here,” he said, and took the makeup from her hands. He’d had an idea; Jessica watched him work but didn’t ask questions. He took the little packages, the cracked plastic raining rosy and rainbow dusts on his hands, and balanced a few along the top edge of the dumpster; others he put in a row on the ground. He sat back down.
“Watch and be amazed,” he said, and took aim at the particularly ugly eye shadow she’d been wearing, sitting helplessly at the top corner of the bin. Jessica strolled back over to him, sitting down again, her cheek pressed against his shoulder as she waited, watching him intently. Aaron took aim and made a small explosion sound with his mouth when he fired; the little pot of eye shadow was flung from its perch, shattering into a dozen pieces on the ground, the plastic glittering on the dusty pavement. Jessica clapped.
“Nice aim. Let me try,” she said, taking the slingshot from him and picking a large rock from the pile; she aimed, poking her tongue between her lips, and let the rock fly – it missed the target of ruby lipstick by an inch.
“Ugh! So close,” she said, and grabbed another rock. Her eyes were glowing, the chip in her tooth flashing when she laughed.
“Very close,” Aaron agreed, and cheered along with her when the lipstick finally went sailing, falling backwards behind the dumpster with a quiet clatter. He looked over at her streaked face, and she smiled at him.
“Maybe one day you’ll be as good as me,” he said. She smiled sadly.
“Maybe one day we’ll both be better,” she said quietly, and Aaron knew she wasn’t talking about the slingshot. He passed her another rock, and she held the slingshot with a steady hand as she took aim, her eyes shining brightly. He thought about the crumpled essay in the garbage.
“Maybe we will.”