Monday's lunch hour found me back in Mr. Bodoni's office. That morning I'd been handed a slip of paper from the office, ordering me to report to the guidance counselor at noon. When I came in, Mr. Bodoni was at his desk eating a salad out of a plastic clamshell and when he looked up, he had some lettuce stuck to his upper lip. He wiped it off quick and pushed the salad aside, but I couldn’t help feeling I was interrupting his lunch hour too.
He instructed me to take a seat and launched right into it. "You're attendance has been slipping again. Did you forget what we talked about, Dillon?"
"Why am I here?" I asked. "Why don't you just give me detention—or suspend me, if that's what you want to do."
"Dillon, there is obviously something going on with you," he said, wiping his mouth again. "I'm just hoping we can figure it out before we have to expel you."
"Expel?" I repeated. I figured he was just using scary language, trying to get me to talk. "Why would you expel me?"
"If you continue to miss your classes, you won't be giving us much choice."
It did work. It did scare me a little. Despite the skipping, my grades were still solid, my test scores just as high. That's not fair! I almost said, but stopped myself before the words could leave my mouth. Saying that never helped.
"So," Mr. Bodoni said, more gently, "do you want to tell me what's going on?"
I opened my mouth then closed it again.
The thing was, I hadn't started skipping school because of my mom, or because of Adam, or because of anything you could wrap up in a neat little box. I just couldn't stand it anymore, sitting there behind a desk, raising my hand like a wind-up toy. I'd been telling myself for so long that all I had to do was get through high school, get good grades and there would be a light at the end of the tunnel called college, my eventual ticket to a good career and a good life. Those were Mom’s words of course; they’d been frequently repeated when all I wanted to do during my freshman year l was mope around my room, when I didn't even want to come out to eat. You just have to get through this, Dillon. High school became This Thing I Had To Do and along the way I lost sight of the why. I wasn't thinking about college anymore. Maybe Lionel did have a hand in it; it was true that watching my brother laze around Dad's big suburban house did not compel me to action. Nice fucking life, Adam had said. Maybe I was no different from Lionel, with no motivation. After all, we shared the same genetic material.
Or maybe, if I were being honest with myself, it goes further back than that to the stuff I really didn't want to think about. The Ken-stuff. Ken had talked about college like the precocious eighth-grader he was and I'd gone along with it, but it all seemed hypothetical at the time. Four years away? Four years was forever. And fortunately too—just the thought of high school made me nervous. By eighth grade, I was taking math on the high-school campus too. It was still technically Courtyard, and just across the street, but it seemed so much larger and scarier and the high-schoolers hated us—us, the ten or so eighth graders that had dared to place into their geometry class. I was constantly watching my back on that campus, certain if I let my guard down that someone would try to shove me into a locker or give me a swirlie. Ken thought that was funny. It won't be that bad, he said, which is easier to say if you're at least moderately popular. We'll be in it together, he said. And of course I believed him. I mean, as long as I was with Ken, it couldn't be that bad.
But the thing was, he lied. Ken was a liar. And if I couldn't trust him not to abandon me to Courtyard's high school, then maybe all the other stuff was bullshit too.
I didn't tell the guidance counselor any of this.
Instead I asked, "What do you know about depression?"
"Depression?" He seemed surprised. "Do you think you're depressed?"
"I think," I lied. "Well, maybe."
"I do have some literature for you," Mr. Bodoni said. He looked sympathetic now as he dug around in his desk. "Depression can manifest in a lot of different ways, but often you'll feel lethargic, you'll start losing interest in things you like. You might have trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating. You might feel hopeless. Here—" he handed a three-fold pamphlet my way, "This'll give you more information."
I stared at the pamphlet but didn't take it.
"Is that what this is about, Dillon?" He looked so concerned. "Is that why you're skipping school?"
"No," I said. It came out as almost a whisper. I hadn't meant to say it. I'd meant to keep going—this depression thing would have been such a good excuse. But Mr. Bodoni was so fucking earnest, with his bow tie, his little deli-shelf salad. I couldn't do it.
"No?" he repeated. "You don't feel depressed?"
"No," I said. "I think my mom is."
"Yeah, she... " I looked over to the bulletin board on Mr. Bodoni's wall, the flyers for homecoming, where to buy tickets. "She got suspended from her job. And she hasn't done anything since then, I mean, she just sits on the couch all day." My attention snapped back to Mr. Bodoni when I realized what I'd said. "You're not going to tell anyone about that, are you? I mean, it's not like she isn't taking care of me."
"But you're worried about her?"
"No," I said, "I mean, yes. I mean, I'm worried about her because she seems unhappy, but... "
"Have you told her?" Mr. Bodoni leaned forward. "That you're worried, I mean?"
"No," I said. My own answer kind of surprised me. "I haven't."
"Do you think you should?"
"You need to talk to her. Otherwise, how will she know how you feel?"
"She should know. She's my mother."
"Yes," Mr. Bodoni said. "I'm sure she knows absolutely everything about you."
So guidance counselors used sarcasm too. But he had a point.
"Why don't I make you a deal?" Mr. Bodoni asked.
"You stop skipping school from now on. No more missed classes. And you talk to your mother." He paused. "Is there someone else—another adult—that could help you talk to her?"
"Her boyfriend, I guess." I shrugged one shoulder. "He thought she was depressed too."
Mr. Bodoni nodded. "So you will both talk to your mother. And for my part, I’ll personally talk to the vice principal and make sure you don't get in trouble. As long as you uphold your end by continuing to attend all your classes, we won’t need to talk about expulsion again.”
I thought about it. The sensible part of me realized this was a fair deal, probably more than I deserved at this point. Even if a voice in the back of my mind was telling me that this would mean giving up, admitting defeat.
"Fine," I said, hoping it sounded a little spiteful. "Deal."
"Hang on," Mr. Bodoni said. "There's one more catch."
Of course there was.
"You'll continue to come check in with me."
I chewed the inside of my cheek. I couldn't think of a reason to fight it.
"Okay," I said. "But I can go now, right?"
"In a minute." Mr. Bodoni flipped open the notebook on his desk and traced his finger down the page. "How about we meet again next Wednesday?"
"Well," he said, folding his hands atop the notebook, "It's a big weekend, isn't it?"
"You mean homecoming," I said.
He nodded. "Are you planning on attending?"
"Not the dance," I said. "Why? Does it matter?"
There was a brief pause before Mr. Bodoni shook his head. "I'll see you next Wednesday, Dillon," was all he said.
By the next day, school spirit week was in full swing. The big pep rally wasn't until Friday, but the school was already decked out banners, crepe paper and hand-painted posters in dizzyingly bright blue and yellow. Today, the same colors adorned almost the whole the student body, though I was sure that had more to do with the announcement that the class with most spirit points would be awarded a pizza party than actual enthusiasm for our soccer team. Even Teek was wearing a blue hoodie I hadn't known she owned. I felt like a defector in my orange t-shirt.
When I saw Adam, he was wearing all black. I figured he had to be making a statement. He didn't see me come up; he was fighting with his locker, muttering a stream of profanity under his breath.
"Hey," I said, leaning against the locker bank. "What's up with you?"
"Fucking homecoming," he said.
"Home. Coming," he repeated, like I was brain-damaged. He stopped fiddling with the lock and decided to kick the locker instead. "Fuck!"
"So you don't have a date or something?" I asked, a feeble attempt to lighten the mood. He looked at me, and for a second I thought he was going to go for my throat.
"The game!" he said. "The soccer game! Coach won't let me play, but he wants me to come anyway and sit on the bench."
"To support the team!" Adam threw his arms in the air. "Except, all the other midfielders suck. They suck! And I'm just going to have to sit there and watch them...watch them..."
"Yes!" He seemed to calm down for a second, resting his forehead against the bank of lockers. "And we're going to lose. And it's going to suck."
"You don't know that—"
"Yes I do!" Adam was vehement. "I do!"
"Okay," I said. "Don't sit on the bench then. Don't even go to the game."
He looked at me like I'd just given him a genius answer instead of, you know, the obvious one.
"Okay," he said, “what do you want to do instead?"
"Um, well… " I scraped my sneaker along the cement. "I was going to go the game. With Teek, you know."
Adam wasn't convinced. "Come on, Dillon. Who else am I gonna hang out with?"
"I don't know," I said. "But Teek will be pissed at me if I just—”
"Bring her along! Trust me, she doesn't want to watch us lose either. It's going to—“
"Suck, I know. But she's gone to all the games this season and... well, she's kinda dating Jacob Saddler."
"Saddler's going to play for like, the first five minutes, then he'll be on the bench," Adam said. "He's only a starter because his parents donated all this money to the team. Coach wants to give us at least a chance of winning one game of the year people actually wants. So tell her to go watch the first five minutes and then come out with us."
"I don't know if I can convince her," I said. I was trying not to smile at what Adam said about Jacob but…it was kind of funny, you know? Adam was so matter of fact about it. "I'll ask, I guess."
"Great," Adam said. He looked down at his locker and shook his head. "Okay, fuck this, I gotta get to class. See you later, okay?"
"Yep," I said. I waved at him as he took off around the corner.
"You're awesome, Dillon!" he called over his shoulder.
That definitely made me smile. Adam thought I was awesome.
I'd worry about what to tell Teek later.
Up next Thursday, Chapter Seventeen: Plans II.
And I am so thrilled about this commission from Frannipan! I asked them to draw two of my characters and they picked Lionel and Dillon and put them in this perfect band-postered room. Check out more of their art here!