Mr. Hibma had given one of the kiss-asses a stopwatch and deemed her the umpire. Some days Mr. Hibma lectured. Some he allowed his classes to play trivia games. These were the two ways he could stomach teaching: losing himself in a lecture or daydreaming while the kids were absorbed in guessing.
“Mr. Hibma,” the kiss-ass called. “Steven keeps saying ‘retarded.’ He said ‘Australia’s retarded nephew’ for New Zealand.”
“It should be noted,” said Mr. Hibma. “One could as easily say Australia is the big retarded uncle of New Zealand.”
Mr. Hibma knew he could teach for all eternity and it still wouldn’t feel natural. He was a geography teacher but he didn’t teach the subject of geography. He lectured about whatever he felt like and left the memorizing of topographical terms and state capitals to the kids. They had books. They had exercise manuals. If they were smart and curious they’d end up knowing a lot, and if they were dumb they wouldn’t.
“Semifinal round,” the kiss-ass announced.
Mr. Hibma listened as a boy named Vince who was known for giving out bubble gum tried to differentiate Asian countries.
“There are a lot of people crammed together,” Vince said. “Short people?” He drummed his fingers, searching. “Not the one with the hanging ducks.”
The kiss-ass called time up. Today’s game was something akin to “The $10,000 Pyramid.” It was new to the kids. They’d never heard of “The $10,000 Pyramid. “
Mr. Hibma said, “Let me help. This is a country full of off-white folks who smile funny, eat raw fish, and wear the hippest shoes.”
“Correct. I wouldn’t trade you kids for all the tea in… Shelby?”
“China,” she said.
Mr. Hibma sometimes viewed himself as a character in a novel. At the age of twenty-nine, he’d already experienced three things that mostly only happened in books. (1) As an infant, he’d been stolen from the hospital by a nurse. The duration of the abduction had been six hours and he’d been unharmed, but still. (2) He had unexpectedly inherited money. It was only $190,000 and he’d blown it in two years traveling around Europe, but still. (3) He had chosen his permanent residence by throwing a dart at a map. There hadn’t been a town where the dart had stuck, but there weren’t many towns in Citrus County, Florida. Citrus County was a couple hours north of St. Petersburg, on what people called the Nature Coast, which Mr. Hibma had gathered was a title of default; there was nature because there were no beaches and no amusement parks and no hotels and no money. There were rednecks and manatees and sinkholes. There were insects, not gentle crickets but creatures with stingers and pincers and scorn in their hearts. There was the smell of vegetation, every plant blooming outrageously or rotting by the minute. There was a swampy lake and a complex of aging villas surrounding that lake, and one of these villas was now Mr. Hibma’s home.
Teaching had been the only job available to him, and for a while it was amusing, another lark, but now he’d been doing it a year and a half. It was February. It was Thursday. It was fourth period. Mr. Hibma was sick of skinny, smelly, hormone-dazed kids staring at him and lying to him and asking him questions. He was sick of their clothes, their faces. And the teachers were worse. Mr. Hibma did his best to keep to himself–ate in his classroom, avoided heading clubs or committees, kept all his discipline in-house instead of dealing with the office, and kept away from “7th hour,” which was what the younger teachers called meeting at a Mexican restaurant Friday afternoon and getting drunk.
Despite failing to name their semifinal nation, Vince and his partner had advanced. Their opponents had broken a rule by using hand gestures and had been disqualified. It was Vince’s team against Shelby and Toby. Shelby was the smartest student Mr. Hibma had, and Toby, well, smart wasn’t the word. Cunning. Maybe he was cunning.
Shelby knew a lot about stand-up comedians. She had memorized the acts of Bill Hicks, Dom Irrera, Richard Belzer–nobody new, just stand-ups from years ago. She knew where these guys had gotten their starts and what jokes they were known for. She knew a lot about a lot of different things–literature, illnesses. Also, Mr. Hibma had noticed, Shelby seemed to want to be a Jew. She used words like meshugana and mensch and had brought matzo ball soup for ethnic food week and the days she missed school with a cold or stomachache were always Jewish holidays. Shelby lived with her father and maybe a sister in a little ranch house a stone’s throw from the school. Her mother had died a couple years ago.
And Toby, denizen of detention, breaking rules in a way that seemed meant to reach a quota. There was no joy in his misbehavior, no rage. He didn’t have friends but didn’t get picked on. Neither of his parents were around. He lived on a big piece of property with his uncle.
Vince and his partner identified Morocco in seven seconds. Shelby and Toby had to beat that. Shelby trained her eyes coolly on the card. When the kiss-ass gave the signal, she said, “Where Bjork is from.”
“I’ve heard of Bjork,” said Toby.
“You’re not allowed to talk,” said the kiss-ass.
“Then how am I supposed to answer?”
“It was named to make people think it wasn’t an inviting place to settle,” said Shelby.
“You’re allowed to guess countries,” the kiss-ass told Toby. “You’re not allowed to make comments.”
“Shitland?” Toby offered. “That doesn’t sound inviting.”
“Time,” blurted the kiss-ass.
Mr. Hibma informed the class that he’d gone to a flea market that past weekend and found a man selling movie posters for a dime each. He’d purchased three hundred. From here on out, these would serve as prizes. He presented Vince with “Midnight Run” and handed Shelby “The Milagro Beanfield War.”
“Let me get this straight,” Vince said. “First place is a poster and second place is a poster?”
Mr. Hibma picked up a few stubs of chalk and shook them in his hand. “If Vince and Toby were gentlemen, they’d let the ladies keep the prizes.”
“I’m not a gentleman,” Toby said. “I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a gentleman.”
The lunch bell rang, ending the discussion and prompting a swift and sweeping exodus from the room.
“By the way, Toby,” Mr. Hibma said. “You’ve got detention tomorrow afternoon for cursing.”
Toby looked toward the ceiling a moment and then gave a dispassionate nod. Detention was a part of his life he’d come to terms with.
The gas station. Scant light scarring the sky. Toby planted his feet and took a full breath, the air tart with petroleum. He saw the pay phone over near the air and vacuum. He was as weak as ever. Anything could make him weak–the wrong smell, the wrong tint in the sky, thinking about all the dragging afternoons he’d endured in his lifetime and all the afternoons to come. He was addicted to petty hoodlumism. He rested what was left of his soda on the metal sill, picked up the phone, dropped in coins, and dialed a number at random. A man with a Northern accent answered and Toby asked him if he believed his life was worth a damn, if he honestly believed anyone liked him.
“Who is this?” the man said, eager, like he got prank calls all the time.
“Nobody you’d understand,” Toby told him.
“Pay phone,” the guy said, apparently reading his caller ID.
“At the Citgo,” Toby said.
“The Citgo? Tell you what, smart guy. I’m coming up there and I’m going to bash your brains in with a softball bat. How does that sound for a prank?”
“That would kill me, or at least do me grievous harm. That’s what my uncle used to say, that he was going to do me grievous harm.”
“I wish he had. It might’ve helped.”
“A softball bat?”
“I use it for softball. I guess it’s the same as a baseball bat.”
“You’re just saying you’d do that,” Toby said. “You really wouldn’t. You wouldn’t murder a fourteen-year-old kid.”
“I don’t know,” the guy said. “I think I might this time.”
“Trust me, you’d think better of it. You’re not like me. An idea strikes me, I’m helpless against it.”
“The Citgo on Route 50?”
“That’s the one.”
The guy hung up. Toby looked at the phone in his hand then let it dangle by its cord. He slurped his soda until it was only ice and left the cup on the ground and walked the woods’ edge. He found a spot to enter the tangled trees, angling toward Uncle Neal’s property. He was taking the long way, out by the hardwoods, so he could check on the bunker. He wasn’t going in. He only went in when he wanted to stay down for a long time. He liked to walk by, to see that the bunker was undisturbed. He didn’t know whose property it was on. He’d been through that part of the woods a hundred times before he’d found it, a hundred times walking right past the bunker as he tromped through that hard-duned no-man’s-land jumbled kittycorner to Uncle Neal’s property. The bunker, with its ancient boards pushed in and cracked by tree roots, with its stench of hands and tarnish, with its muddy, mushroomed hatch door which had opened with a moist whiff and then a deafening silence. The bunker was from some terrible time, maybe not so very long ago but a different terrible time than the one Toby was in, a terrible time that had come to an end, one way or another.
Toby had a folding chair down there that he’d dragged from another part of the woods, and matches and candles and water. When he went down, he did nothing. Toby believed the bunker had a specific purpose for him, and he wasn’t going to make a move until he parsed out what that purpose was. He wasn’t going to hoard dirty magazines or fireworks or pretend he was camping. He didn’t do a thing but sit in the chair and smell the smells. Sometimes he smelled vinegar. Sometimes the scales of fish. And each time he left, each time he finally climbed out, he felt that the bunker was sad to see him go. He felt he was leaving the bunker lonesome. Maybe nothing terrible had happened in Toby’s bunker. It was one room, tidy in its way, plain. It could’ve been used for simple food storage and nothing else, back before refrigerators, back when the Indians were running around. Maybe this was a place for old-timey rednecks to keep their alligator meat away from vultures.
Another week of school had passed, more quizzes and study halls and, in the case of Mr. Hibma’s class, more games. Shelby wasn’t the new kid anymore, and she was grateful for that. She’d settled in and was more or less slipping through the days. People had their own problems. Shelby had been fooled about Florida, but that was okay. She wasn’t the first. She’d imagined a place that was warm and inviting and she’d gotten a place that was without seasons and sickeningly hot. She’d wanted palm trees and she’d gotten grizzly, low oaks. She’d wanted surfers instead of rednecks. She’d thought Florida would make her feel glamorous or something, and there was a region of Florida that might’ve done just that, but it wasn’t this part. It was okay, though. It was something different. It wasn’t the Midwest. It wasn’t a place where you could look around and plainly see, for miles, that nothing worthwhile was going on. Shelby would travel to better places when she was older, when she could chart her own course. She’d go to India and France. Shelby could see the mornings of her future, the foreign pink sunrises.
The sunrise this morning, in Citrus County, had been the color of lima beans. It had been a color you might see under peeled-off paint. Shelby had stuffed one pocket of her army pants with bagels, and into the other pocket she’d slid a shallow, lidded bowl full of lox. Once she and her father and her little sister had boarded the boat and snapped the straps of their lifejackets, Shelby spread her brunch feast, complete with sliced tomato and capers and cream cheese. They’d rented a pontoon boat and planned to cruise the spring system of Citrus County until they saw a manatee. They’d been told they could swim with the manatees if they liked. Manatees had no natural defense other than size, and that very size got them stuck in canals at low tide and cut up by boat propellers. The man who rented the boats had explained all this from beneath the brim of a blue ball cap adorned with the words IDLE SPEED, ASSHOLE! The man said Citrus County never got hit directly by a hurricane and, in his personal opinion, that’s why the manatees had chosen this spot.
Shelby’s father, a man with limp hair that parted and re-parted as the wind blew, a former boxer who spoke with an accent that could’ve come from anywhere, was always trying to expose his daughters to new things–new foods, new terrain, new ideas. He felt he had to be twice the parent, Shelby figured. And he was. Shelby did not feel deprived.
Shelby’s sister Kaley had brought along her book about Manny the Manatee. Immediately after breakfast, Kaley stowed the book under a seat, along with her precious watch that always read 3:12 and the rest of the orange juice. Kaley would soon turn four. She looked up at Shelby, displeased that Shelby had seen her stash spot. This was something Kaley did lately–hoarded. She wore, as always, socks but no shoes.
After Shelby had cleaned up the remains of the bagels and lox, her father puttering them out into the deep water, she took out her vocab words. She had the definitions memorized. This week the theme was bureaucracy. She wanted to go through the whole semester without missing one word of one definition.
“You’d like my word from yesterday,” her father said. “On my calendar at work: poshlust. It means bad art. It’s Russian, I think.”
Shelby folded the paper in her hands and slipped it into her pocket. “Mr. Hibma told us about that. Poshlost. We had that for a word. It means more than bad art. Means bad art that most smart people don’t know is bad.”
“Mr. Hibma doesn’t give examples.”
“What do you mean?”
“He doesn’t feel he needs to prove his statements. He feels that examples are petty.”
“Well, his poshlost sounds like elitism to me.”
“Mr. Hibma wishes elitism would come back into style.”
“I met that guy,” Shelby’s father said. “He’s one of those cool pessimists.”
“Dad,” Kaley broke in. “Will the manatee bite me?”
“No, the manatee loves you.”
“Is he sleeping?”
“He might be.”
“Where are we going?” Shelby asked.
“Not a clue.”
Shelby’s father had steered them down a river which had rapidly tapered into a house-lined canal. They approached a cul-de-sac. Shelby’s father put the boat in reverse to avoid hitting a dock, then began to execute a three-point turn. The boat was unwieldy. An old man came out into his backyard in order to stare at Shelby’s father as his three-point turn became a five-point turn, a seven.
“Thanks for your concern,” Shelby’s father shouted.
The man wagged his head. “There’s a sign,” he squawked. “At the mouth of the canal.”
Shelby’s father righted the boat and they headed back out to the main confluence of springs, past moss-laden oaks and palm trees that grew out of the ground sideways. They rounded a bend. The sun was out, warming the aluminum frame of the pontoon boat and the damp turf that covered the deck. Kaley, socks soaked, padded over and leaned on Shelby’s leg.
Shelby closed her eyes and let the breeze tumble over her. She knew her family was getting by in the way people like them got by. They were making it. They did things on the weekends. Their moods went with the weather. In Indiana there were proven methods for dealing with misfortune–certain types of foods and certain types of get-togethers and certain expressions. Here Shelby’s family was on its own, and that had been the whole point of coming here. There were things to do and they had to go find them and do them.
Shelby breathed the mild stink of the weedy water and soon her mind wandered again to Toby, a boy in her geography class. He’d been her trivia partner this past week. Shelby felt tingly, thinking of him. Or maybe it was the sun. She understood that her attraction to Toby was clichéd. She was considered a good girl and he a bad boy. There was a reason why it was clichéd, a reason why girls like Shelby, through the years, had become infatuated with boys like Toby. Regular boys were boring. There wasn’t a way the regular boys could make her feel that she couldn’t feel on her own. And Toby had calves like little coconuts and long fingers and his hair and eyes were the flattest brown. He wasn’t in a clique. It seemed there was something about him you couldn’t know right away. Shelby wanted his hands on her. She wanted to smell his hair. She wanted him to give her goose bumps. There were a lot of things Shelby wanted to do and she was pretty sure she wanted to do them with Toby.
The movement of the boat jostled Shelby. The waterway was opening up, ripples turning to waves, saltwater fishing boats speeding this way and that. The pontoon boat rocked. A pelican flew low over their canopy, its wings bellowing against the air, its crusty pink eyes narrowed, and Kaley squeezed Shelby’s leg.
“That’s a channel marker,” Shelby’s father said. “We’re going out to the Gulf.”
He waited for a break in the traffic and pulled a struggling U-turn, the waves clapping against the bottom of the boat. The engine was doing everything it could.
Shelby heard familiar voices and turned to see a couple of popular girls from her school wearing bikinis, sprawled on the front of a gleaming white boat. The boat was anchored. They waved as Shelby passed. They were eating pineapple.
“I can’t thank you enough for not being slutty,” Shelby’s father told her. “Not that I’m counting my chickens. There’s time yet.”
“You’ve got character. You don’t try and impress people.”
“I’ll say ‘you’re welcome’ again and we can leave it at that.”
“Maybe I’m doing something right,” he said.
Shelby’s father drove the boat and patted Kaley’s head, guiding them past birdbathed back yards, past mangrove stands full of cranes. They ended up back near where they’d rented the boat and started off in yet another direction, down a wild-looking river shaded by vines. Kaley retrieved her book from under the seat and studied it.
Shelby was still thinking about the girls on the boat. She had chosen not to be one of them. In October her family had moved to Citrus County from Indiana and Shelby had immediately, halfway through her first day of school, been granted membership in the popular gaggle of girls. She was subjected to an onslaught of sleepovers, pool parties, and laps around the outlet mall. This lasted a month, at which time these girls could no longer deny that Shelby was uninterested in makeup, basketball players, the marital intrigues of celebrities, who would take whom to the dance. She didn’t like the same magazines they did, didn’t care to diet. She sometimes read books for pleasure.
After detention on Monday, Toby headed for the track-and-field tryouts. A bunch of other kids were going too. This was the kind of thing kids did. Toby walked past the faculty parking lot, the garbage bins. He rounded the trailers. There was Shelby Register, sitting on a bench at the little playground, reading a newspaper. The middle school had once been an elementary school, so it still had this kiddie playground and low water fountains you almost had to get on your knees to drink from.
Toby took a moment to watch Shelby. She wasn’t as transparent as the other kids at Toby’s school. He sort of hated her because everything was easy for her, but somehow she felt like an ally. She had misery in her and she didn’t give it away. She kept it and believed in it. She was like Toby; she was fine with whatever people thought she might be, fine with being underestimated. She was pretty without looking like all the other pretty girls. She wasn’t ashamed of being smart.
A toddler with red hair was on the swing, kicking her feet and tucking them. Toby walked up beside Shelby and for a moment she didn’t notice him. He wasn’t sure why he was stopping, wasn’t sure what he wanted to happen. Shelby had crisp tan shorts on instead of her old army pants. Her legs were ghastly white. She had wisps of hair falling over her ears. Shelby thought she was better than everyone else, and maybe she was right. She wasn’t better than Toby, though, because Toby wasn’t playing the same game.
She lowered her paper. “You can sit if you want.”
Toby’s face was to the sun. The sky was still, empty except for one immovable cloud that looked like a boulder. Toby stepped in front of the bench and lowered himself onto it.
“They’re going to eliminate pennies.” Shelby folded the paper and tucked it under her leg.
“How?” Toby said.
“Just pennies, for now.”
“So no more of those little trays: leave a penny, take a penny.”
“Those will go to museums.”
Toby grunted. He looked at the little girl on the swing.
“That’s my sister,” Shelby said. “We live through there. You can almost see our house.”
Toby looked at Shelby, then back at her sister.
“How was detention?”
“Same as always,” Toby said. “I won.”
Shelby’s sister was swinging higher and higher, getting the chains parallel to the ground. This didn’t seem to make Shelby nervous.
“Do you watch Comedy Central?” she asked.
“I don’t have cable.”
“Is your uncle a hippie?”
“How do you know I live with my uncle?”
“Everyone knows that.”
Toby squinted. The sun seemed aimed at him. “His income is up and down,” he said.
“They had this guy doing this stellar bit about Hot Pockets.”
“I eat those,” Toby said.
An active old couple peddled by on mountain bikes. They waved to Toby and Shelby, who watched them until they rounded a thicket.
“What’s your sister’s name?”
Kaley held a big toy watch. She wasn’t wearing shoes.
“Are you going to be late to tryouts?” Shelby said.
“I’ll make the team. Nobody else wants to pole vault. It’s not even supposed to be a middle school sport.”
“Then why is it?”
“The superintendent. He instated it after he married this lady from Finland.” Toby couldn’t keep his eyes off Kaley. Her hair was glinting like a fishing lure.
“He did it for love,” Shelby said. “He made pole vault a sport for love.”
The cloud wasn’t like a boulder anymore. It was like a scoop of something. It slid in front of the sun and Toby could see. There was nothing to look at but Shelby and her sister, her sister’s filthy feet.
“Would you recommend that island with all the monkeys on it?” Shelby said. “I have to find outings for my family. What’s left of it.”
“What island with monkeys on it?”
Shelby tipped her chin. “Down by Homosassa Springs. Monkey Island?”
“I don’t go on outings.”
“You’ve never even heard of it?”
“Not till now.”
“Well, it’s there. They filmed a Tarzan movie and left the monkeys.”
Toby shrugged. He didn’t care about movies or monkeys. He watched Shelby adjust herself on the bench, then push the newspaper farther under her.
“If you ever want to kiss me,” she said, “not that you currently want to or anything, I would be okay with that.”
Toby felt panic wash through him. He tried to nod.
“I wasn’t telling you to kiss me. In fact, don’t. It would be too weird now. I said that for future reference is all. Just so you know.”
Toby stood up from the bench, finding his balance. “Future reference,” he said. He stumbled getting back to the sidewalk.
Mr. Hibma managed to stretch genealogy presentations into a three-day affair, giving him a break from lecturing and from compiling trivia fodder. There were only a few kids left who hadn’t dispensed the uneventful lives of their recent ancestors. Mr. Hibma was seated low behind his desk, his dusty computer looming near. He’d prohibited the use of the Internet in his class. The students were not allowed to research any presentations online. He was sick of it, the Internet.
Mr. Hibma looked up and called on Shelby. She never volunteered for anything because she didn’t want to be a kiss-ass, but she was always prepared. She got up and spoke about her mother’s family. Her great-grandparents had owned a cane shop, back in Belgium. Their daughter, Shelby’s grandmother, had come to visit the States, fallen in love with a history teacher, and never returned to Europe. She and the history teacher had hosted a series of foster children before finally conceiving Shelby’s mother. One of the foster children had become famous in art circles, a woman named Janet Stubblefield who had dropped out of high school to become a hippie. She became expert at constructing mobiles out of old boots, and against her will she developed a following. People from all over began making art out of shoes. The whole business put Aunt Janet off. She moved to rural Tennessee and became a hermit and died in middle age. She had told everyone to stay away, that it was important to her to die alone.
Shelby dropped her note cards in the trash and sat down, light applause playing about the room. She hadn’t mentioned her mother. She’d chosen her mother’s side, but she’d cut the history short. A kid could really get sick of having a dead parent, Mr. Hibma imagined. These kids were all sad or crazy, and most of them had reason to be.
Mr. Hibma asked for the next presenter and a girl named Irene, who’d worn a sweater set and heavy makeup, got up and said some things and retook her seat. Toby was next, the only one who hadn’t gone. He’d chosen his father’s family, the family whose name he bore: McNurse. They’d moved from Ireland to Canada at the turn of the century, a well-off family who’d chosen to immigrate to Canada instead of the United States because it was harder to get into Canada. Most of them had died in the forties in an accident. An avalanche.
Mr. Hibma was sure Toby was lying. Toby was testing Mr. Hibma, seeing if he would call him on his fake history, but there was also a chance Toby didn’t know a thing about his father’s family. Toby may never have met the man. Or maybe Toby’s history was nothing anyone would want to know. Maybe making a history up was the wisest option. Well, Mr. Hibma would give Toby an A+.
“My father was a snake researcher who drove a big Cadillac,” Toby said. “He met my mother while driving across the country. He only slept with her because he’d promised himself he’d sleep with a woman every night of his road trip, and she was the only woman not spoken for in Farmington, New Mexico.”
Toby sat and Mr. Hibma replaced him in front of the class. He told the kids to give themselves a hand, then to line up and receive a poster.
“I’ve got ‘Mermaids,’” he said. “‘Fletch II.’ Except you, Thomas.”
Thomas, a kid with a widow’s peak whose parents farmed fancy tomatoes, gaped at Mr. Hibma.
“In your notes you had pages printed from the internet. I could see the site info at the top and bottom. You’ll be getting a C. Everyone else gets an A-. Toby, you get an A+. Best presentation of the year.”
On the way out of Mr. Hibma’s class, Shelby had whispered to Toby that she was going to find the old lost tennis court after school, that Toby should meet her there and keep her company, so once the final bell had sounded he headed out through the pastures behind the football bleachers. The tennis court couldn’t have been more than a mile away, but there was no trail. You had to walk through the pastures and then over a high spot in the swamp and then it was in among a bunch of spindly pine trees. It was in the middle of nowhere, a full tennis court.
When Toby arrived, the court was empty. He walked up to the fence. The surface of the court was cracked with weeds. The net was sagging. There was an aluminum bench with algae or something growing on it. Toby started as a ball flew over the fence and bounced into the corner. He turned and saw Shelby coming out of some high grass.
“I can tell you by the way you walk,” Shelby said. “Even with your hair short, I could tell it was you.”
Shelby was wearing sunglasses. They made it look like she had a hangover.
“What do I walk like?” Toby asked her.
“You have a hitch. You leave room in every step to change direction, to change your mind.”
“I hardly ever change my mind,” Toby said.
The sun was hitting Shelby. Her arms and legs were bony. It seemed strange that she could walk around and throw things, as bony as she was. Toby felt he was betraying himself, being out at this tennis court. Shelby seemed dangerous, like a trap.
“Help me,” she said.
She waded back into the tall grass and Toby followed. They dragged their feet and shook the underbrush and whenever Toby found a ball he handed it to Shelby and she threw it back over the fence. She seemed charmed that people used this court. Someone had dragged racquets and dozens of balls through a half-hour of Florida wilderness in order to play on a dilapidated court with a rotting net.
“People get really bored,” Toby said.
The two of them worked their way through the grass and then around some cypress knees. They found eight or nine balls, all new, bright in color and rubbery in smell. They looked absolutely fluorescent against the dingy court.
“A while back a millionaire lived in Citrus County,” Shelby said. “His mistress loved tennis, so he had this court built out in the woods so they could play in secret.”
“Wow,” Toby said. He knew this story was false. This tennis court, along with a half-built golf course Toby sometimes walked through, were remnants of an unfinished development. Nothing romantic. And he wasn’t going to tell Shelby but her mysterious new tennis balls were probably the work of drunken teenagers. Most mild mysteries in Citrus County boiled down to drunk teenagers.
They made it around to the opposite side of the court, where the pines were. Toby had no idea why they were doing this. They found a couple more balls and then when it seemed there were no more Toby spotted something down under some thick brush, down in a little ravine that must’ve been formed by a sinkhole.
Toby held onto a vine and lowered himself. He mashed a bush over with his foot and reached down and grasped the ball. He cleaned it of clumps of dirt and an insect or two, put it in his pocket, and climbed up to flat ground.
He presented the pale, bounceless orb to Shelby, and she didn’t hurl it over the fence. She held it in one hand and with the other she drew Toby in by the elbow. She was kissing him. Shelby’s mouth was moist and assertive and Toby could feel the world’s vastness. He knew there were oceans out there that made the Gulf look like a puddle. There were places covered in snow, places where people ate snakes for dinner, places where people believed that every single thing that happened in their lives was determined by ill-willed spirits. Shelby tasted like nothing. She smelled like freckles and she was making sounds, but she didn’t taste like anything. Toby didn’t know whether his eyes were open. His feet were planted and he was keeping his balance as Shelby leaned against him.
When Toby thought of his hands, he began to panic. The point of the kissing had been reached where Toby was supposed to do more, something with his hands. Shelby’s fingers were up under Toby’s shirt in the back. He could feel the old bare tennis ball rubbing his skin. Toby took a step backward and Shelby almost fell. He said he had to go. Shelby looked at him like he was a silly child.
That evening Toby skipped dinner and went to the bunker. He listened to his breathing and to busy drones that seemed to come from beyond the bunker walls but that also could have been coming from his mind. For a while, a tint of light came in from above, through a small vent, but once the sun set Toby couldn’t see anything. He had candles but he didn’t light one. And so he couldn’t see the big railroad ties that stood in each corner for support. He couldn’t see the spider webs or the pale roots that hung limply from the earthen walls. There was nothing down here but what you brought. Toby thought about the way some of the other kids had looked at him when he showed up for the track tryout. He thought about his hunger, which he could ignore until it went away. He thought about Shelby Register and her little sister, and about their dad who probably patted their heads all the time and watched them sleep and gave them five dollars for each good report card grade.
When Toby was in the bunker, he never knew how much time was passing. He heard voices sometimes, nothing he could understand. He heard whimpering. He heard static. It was all in his imagination. It took hours in the bunker for him to clear away all the chatter from school–blabbing teachers and gossiping classmates and orders from coaches and stupid announcements over the PA.
His back was stiff when he stood up from the folding chair. His sweat had dried on him. He wanted to know who else had been down in this bunker and who had built it. Toby had been meant to find it. Toby wasn’t another hard-luck case. He wasn’t another marauding punk. He’d been acting like one, thus far, but he was destined for higher evil and he could feel that destiny close at hand. He was more terrible inside than every juvenile delinquent in the whole county put together.