1. Don't Be Fooled By Changes Of Location
'I don't know why you're worrying, Mom. I'll have everything under control here just the same way I did in Highland.'
Dylan thought to himself that Kris certainly had the conversation with their mother under control. At least that meant Dylan didn't have to interact with either of them.
'I just don't want you to think that I don't understand the problems of moving to a new town. Look at me, for example. I have to restart my business here, and it's not easy. So I know things might not be easy for … other people.'
'You mean, like Dylan? I've been watching his back for years, and it's got to be easier here where we're both starting at the same school at the same time.' With an easy stretch of his arm, Kris reached out and turned the car radio up. It was, of course, already tuned to a station of his choice.
Their mother, without seeming to realise what she was doing, reached out to turn the radio off again so she could continue her pep talk. 'It is the first day at a new school, though—isn't it … Dylan?'
As she was speaking, Dylan leaned forward from the back seat to turn the radio back on and crank up the volume.
'What was that, Mom? Did you say something?'
She automatically turned the radio off again. 'Yes, I was just saying … that … oh, by the way, please feel free to share those new snack treats around. That could be a good way to make new friends—and I'd love to hear what anybody has to say about them.'
As if any high school student would want to be friends with me, Dylan thought. Physically unimpressive both natively and in presentation; no talent for sport and no opinion of it; no compunction about demonstrating that I'm the smartest person in the room; fond of sarcastic wisecracks; contemptuous of the high-school popularity racket and indifferent at best to all group activity. But I'll be sure to bear your 'new snack treats' in mind if they put me in any classes with lab rats.
As the car pulled up, Dylan turned his attention back from his mother's scatter-brained analysis to his brother's announced plans to continue watching Dylan's back and, with those thoughts filling his mind, he propelled himself headlong from the car the exact instant it came to a stop in order to get ahead of the effect of Kris's inevitably stagier entrance.
The car had stopped at a turning circle in front of the high school, and gathered there was a small mixed-sex group of students. At the sight of Dylan one of the boys half-turned to another, pointed, and said, 'Look at the geek!'
'Yeah', the second boy replied. 'Geeky!'
The first to speak stepped forward and caught Dylan's eye. Then he stretched both arms out in front of him, completed the fending-off gesture by putting his upraised palms flat against Dylan's shoulders, and jostled him. 'What are you looking at, geek?' he said.
Dylan had come out of the car in too much of a rush to secure his footing and now he stumbled backward. For a moment he thought he might fall, but worse was what he heard Kris's voice saying behind him.
'Remember what Dad said and please just leave this to me, okay, Mom?' he heard, in a hasty undertone obviously pitched so that none of the other students would pick it up. Then Kris's voice came closer as he got out of the car and took up a stance.
'Leave the geek alone', he said with easy confidence.
Righting himself, Dylan saw that Kris and the other boy, the one who had jostled Dylan, had moved into position opposite each other, taking up mirrored stances for the face-off. He recognised the way they were already sizing each other up for dominance. Kris having uttered the first challenging words, it was the turn of the other to continue the ritual.
'Yeah? Who are you?'
'I'm the guy who's telling you to lay off the geek.' After a moment's pause for silent posturing Kris continued, 'In fact, while I'm here at this school everybody better learn to lay off the geek.'
The other boy looked Kris briefly up and down before reaching out one arm to the side to give Dylan another jostle. 'What if I'm a slow learner?' he said. 'Think you can teach me?'
'Any time you're ready', Kris replied, shifting into what Dylan knew was a fighting stance. 'I don't mind at all.'
The other boy responded by shaping up to Kris. 'Come on, then, let's see what you've got.'
The first tentative exploratory punches had been thrown and dodged and the fight was on the verge of becoming serious when a short solidly built adult in a suit came rushing up. To Dylan's eye he looked as if he might be Chinese, Korean, or Japanese.
'What's going on here?' he exclaimed. 'Break it up now!' As the two boys moved apart with an elaborately ambivalent air, the man continued, 'You know this sort of thing isn't good for the reputation of'—there was a fractional pause as he inhaled in order to give the next two words a breathy reverential emphasis —'Lawndale High.' He looked back and forth between the two combatants. 'Simon Griffith, I expected better of you.'
'We were just getting to know the new students, Mr Chung.'
The man turned to look at Kris and at Dylan, and Kris smoothly inserted an introduction that avoided publicly confirming the family relationship. 'I'm Kris Brocklethwaite', he said, 'and this is Dylan. We don't have any problem here—Mr Chung, is it?'
'Right! Good! Then let's see that it stays that way. Once I've welcomed all the new students to the school, as principal, we like to have little routine individual examinations by the school psychologist in any case. As I've met you now, why don't we start on that right away. We'll get somebody to show you to Mr Munson's office—'
Another bystanding student, a girl, spoke up at this point. 'I can take Kris there, Mr Chung.'
'Thank you, Kerry. And after Mr Munson has finished with you—'
Dylan saw Principal Chung looking towards him and saw where the conversation was headed. '—it'll be my turn', he said, with an inward sigh at the thought of the familiar experience of ceding precedence to his younger brother.
'Good! Now are any of the other new students here?' The principal looked round the group, which was already starting to break up as students drifted away from his presence. 'I'd better go and find them all.' He bustled off.
Simon Griffith had moved back a bit, together with the other boy he'd first spoken to about Dylan's geekiness. He looked across at Kris. 'Guess I'll see you around then—Kuh-riss', he said.
'Guess I'll see you around then, Simon.'
'Come on then, Stevie', Simon said, making a sideways motion with his head, and he and his offsider moved off.
'That was cool, the way you stood up to Simon Griffith', the girl Kerry said to Kris. Kris just shrugged and they fell into step, Kerry using one hand to indicate the way to the psychologist's office while the fingers of the other wiggled in a parting wave to another girl, presumably a friend of hers.
As they walked away, Kris said, 'Do you know anything about this test, Kerry? I didn't get told anything about it before.'
'Oh, everybody has to do it when they start here. Don't worry, you don't get graded. So—Kris Brocklethwaite? that's an interesting name …'
Dylan trailed along behind them unnoticed.
'I don't know why the principal wants you to test me. That whole business when we got here was nothing.'
'What whole business would that be, Kris?'
'Well, when that Simon Griffith saw my brother Dylan, he started picking on him for being a geek because, let's face it, Dylan is a geek. But even if he is a geek, I can't have people picking on my brother for being a geek, because it could make people start thinking that maybe there could be something geeky about me, which is ridiculous, but you can't let people start thinking ridiculous things about you, which is why the best thing is if people don't even know Dylan is my brother, but even then they still might think he has something to do with me, which is why I need to start at a new school by letting everybody know that so long as Kris Brocklethwaite is at this school nobody picks on the geek. So actually that whole thing with Simon was good, because I showed him who I am, and he showed me who he is, and now we know, and everybody saw, which means everybody knows, which is cool. Did you have Simon Griffith do this test or whatever when he started here?'
Mr Munson shook his head slightly. 'I can't discuss my examinations of other students with you. Those are confidential.'
'Well, you're going to have to test Dylan next. He's good at tests. That's not confidential. But he is a major geek. You'll see.'
'Now, Dean, your brother tells me there might be a problem with people picking on you.'
Dylan's face locked up completely. 'It's Dylan.'
'I'm sorry … Dylan. So, do you have a problem with people picking on you, Dean?'
Dylan responded without inflection. 'Kris thinks he has to protect me all the time. Doesn't that make it his problem?'
'Would you describe your brother as being a confident young man?'
'If you're going to be like everybody else and take all your cues from Kris, it doesn't matter what I say, does it?'
Mr Munson frowned. Dylan didn't bother.
Rod could have found artistic inspiration in the way Ms LeBeau jittered with not-really-suppressed frustration and rage, if only he hadn't drained that well dry a long time ago. Instead he concentrated on visual impressions of the new student, whom Ms LeBeau was introducing to the class as Dylan Brocklethwaite. This Dylan wore a figure-concealing outfit in muddy colours, almost aggressively non-descript, but something made Rod feel there was something worth finding out behind that if only he could get a closer look. In the meantime, he focussed his attention on the paper pellets he had prepared and lined up on his desk. He wasn't in the mood for interaction with Ms LeBeau, who had fortunately decided to see whether she could get any amusement out of the new student, asking Dylan a question about the doctrine of 'Manifest Destiny'.
'Manifest Destiny', Dylan said, 'was the doctrine that Americans are better than everybody else, and so they should take other people's land away from them to prove it.'
Rod thought to himself that that had been an artistically effective response, all the more so because of the people in the class it would be wasted on. There were some who probably would have been actively hostile to it, and to Dylan, if only they had been able to understand the statement. Rod thought it deserved some recognition. While LeBeau turned her attention to Karen Johnson and Kent Naylor, who could always be relied on to give wrong answers, Rod flicked a paper pellet neatly onto Dylan's desk. Dylan instantly turned his head: obviously he had realised immediately what had happened, and he also showed no difficulty in picking Rod as the source of the missile. He gazed back with the blankest expression Rod had ever seen, revealing nothing before he turned back to the front.
There was no doubt in Rod's mind that Dylan was somebody he had to draw.
Meanwhile Ms LeBeau had got stupid answers out of Karen and Kent, according to expectations, and was flying into another rage, which must also be according to some kind of expectations. Why she provoked herself like that when it always had the same effect on her, Rod didn't know. She demanded that somebody volunteer to answer her question, or else she'd give double homework and a quiz the next day.
Dylan raised an obviously reluctant hand, and then flinched when Ms LeBeau predictably shouted for him to stop showing off.
Rod had to draw him.
'They don't have boxing as a sport at the school. It's the usual problem with insurance', Kris said, and Dylan saw their father nod in acknowledgement as Kris went on. 'But there's a place for me right away to swim butterfly in a medley relay team with three other freshmen, Simon, Stevie, and Tim—'
'Simon and Stevie?' Dylan asked his brother, who glared at him for the interruption, but deigned to answer.
'That's right, the same ones you met this morning, but don't worry, you won't have any more trouble with them.'
'Oh dear', their mother said, putting her fork down. 'Trouble on your first day?'
'It's okay, Mom. I told you I'd fix it and I did. Don't you know by now you can trust me to keep an eye on Dylan?'
'I'm glad you boys are such good brothers to each other', their mother said. 'Now, how was the rest of your day, Dylan?'
Dylan picked up his glass of milk. 'Nothing I couldn't survive', he said. He took a drink.
'That's good—isn't it?'
'What your mother would really like to know, Dylan, is whether you'll be making a friend or two.'
Dylan gave both parents a blank stare. 'Me? Make a friend? At a school? Where Kris goes?'
Kris jumped into the pause Dylan had created in order to resume his earlier monologue. 'So, as I was saying before I was interrupted, I think these three guys from the swim team are going to make a good group to hang out with, as well as training together, of course. Simon boxes, too, and he's going to show me his gym and so on. And there are some cute girls at the school.' At this point he was cut off again, to his obvious irritation, by a phone call which his father answered.
'Hank Brocklethwaite speaking … yes, I am … does this have anything to do with the incident my sons have already told me about? … oh, I see … well, so long as it's clear that there's no case being made formally for the record … okay, great. Bye!'
Dylan had heard his father's lawyerly side coming out during the phone conversation, but just because he was defending his sons to outsiders Dylan didn't expect that he'd automatically take the same supportive attitude within the four walls of the family home. Whatever they'd called to talk to his parent about, something was up, and that meant probably something bad.
Kris seemed to have made a guess of much the same sort. 'Dad, Simon Griffith already told the principal that we were just getting to know each other. They don't have any witness evidence.'
'It wasn't about that', said their father. 'It was about Dylan.'
'Did you boys see a school psychologist after that incident?'
Dylan got in before Kris could say anything. 'That psychologist is a quack.'
'That psychologist says you have low self-esteem. The school wants to enrol you in a special self-esteem program and then re-test you in a few weeks time.'
Dylan looked steadily at his father. 'And you think that's a good idea', he said flatly.
'Maybe they'll fix you up', said Kris. 'Might be about time.'
Dylan pushed back his chair and stood up. 'My esteem for my self isn't as low as my esteem for anybody who thinks I should be in a special self-esteem program, present company not excepted.'
Rod wanted get a closer look at Dylan Brocklethwaite and made sure to get the seat directly behind him in self-esteem class. From his slight build and unusually fine silky hair—was it auburn or chestnut?—Dylan could easily have been mistaken for a girl. An image started to form in Rod's mind's eye, one in which Dylan's bulky coat and unisex boots were interpreted as a suit of armour, with his big-framed glasses as the helmet visor. Rod was only half-conscious of Ms FitzPatrick's voice gently droning its way through a memorised speech, until the flow was broken by Dylan, who raised a hand to ask the meaning of some of Ms FitzPatrick's psychobabbly mumbo-jumbo.
Judging by his performance in Ms LeBeau's class, Rod thought Dylan would have been smart enough to not to fall into that trap. As Ms FitzPatrick tried to wriggle out of the question, Rod thought about telling Dylan he should just relax and enjoy the nice woman's soothing voice, and he flicked a paper pellet onto Dylan's desk to attract his attention.
Dylan's head snapped round to look straight at Rod. His lips were pressed hard together. After one instant his head snapped back to the front.
Rod followed up the paper pellet with another. This time Dylan did not turn round, but pulled his seat forward a little and hunched forward over whatever he had on his desk. Rod had guessed from the way his shoulders and arms had been moving earlier that he might have been drawing something.
When the class ended Rod got out of his seat and casually ambled forward past Dylan's desk. He saw that Dylan had been doodling a sketch of Ms Fitzpatrick with a piece of stinky cheese for her head. Not bad.
Just as Dylan reached home, he saw his father pull up in front of the house and lean out of his car window.
'Come on, Dylan, let's go!'
'Dad? What are you doing here?'
'Hop in! No time to waste! I'll explain on the way!'
Reluctantly Dylan did as he was told, and his father pulled away from the kerb as soon as the car door was shut.
'Aren't you supposed to be still at work?'
'Not when it's time for you to have a bonding session with your Dad to build up your self-esteem. I want to take this business with your school as a wake-up call and strike while the iron is hot. We're going to spend the rest of the day together, doing something just for you. I've arranged for your first golf lesson.'
'Golf? Golf? Please tell me this is not a Freaky Friday body-swap, Dad. I'm not Kris, I'm your other son. You do remember you have another son, right?'
'Dylan, you and your brother are two unique individuals, each with your own special style, and I appreciate both of you for that. Kris is a swimmer and a boxer, and that's good for him. You're a different person. I think you're really going to enjoy golf, and I know you'll find it's a tremendous advantage when you get out into the working world.'
Dylan looked out the window, thinking about how his father was probably feeling about having the chance to get out on the golf course, and about how he himself couldn't jump out of the moving car. 'So you think it could help me unlock my potential?'
'I hope so, Dylan.'
'And realise my actuality?'
'What does that mean?'
'I don't know. It's something my self-esteem class teacher said.'
The boy had striking looks, although not in the unsubtle way of Kent Naylor—he had more sense of style, too. Yet Rod couldn't remember seeing him around school before: he was most probably new, maybe a freshman, although he was big enough to be older. He was leaning against a bank of lockers as if he owned not only that particular bank but a whole chain in all the best locations. The girl was clutching her books in front of her and looking up at him with an expression which to Rod's eye said, 'Take me, I'm yours!' Judging by the boy's attitude, he was reading it the same way, but he was taking his time to size up the offer. Meanwhile the girl was asking him what he liked to do after school.
'Well, there's training, of course. It's a responsibility. Not just because of being on a swim team for the school, but a responsibility to yourself and to everybody else to keep in the best condition. But I'm not obsessed with sports, the way some guys are. I think it's important to have well-rounded interests, especially now that we're in high school and growing up into maturity. There's definitely a place in life for having fun, but I prefer hanging out with people who have just a little bit more of an adult attitude, not just fooling around like middle-schoolers.'
Rod could see that the boy, for all his careless pose, was following the girl's reactions closely and tailoring his approach to match. She didn't have a prayer.
Just at that moment he caught sight of Dylan Brocklethwaite again, hurrying along the same corridor, hunched forward and head down—except that for a moment Rod was sure that Dylan's gaze was drilling into the same couple he'd been eavesdropping on. Rod switched his own gaze from them to Dylan just as the girl was asking the boy whether he had any brothers or sisters. The boy answered that he was an only child. Rod was sure Dylan had heard: he had a face that didn't give much away, but Rod caught one glimpse of what had to be a grimace there. It wasn't just that he shared Rod's dislike for the boy, his reaction had something more personal in it.
Ms FitzPatrick asked her fourth stupid question of that afternoon's self-esteem class, and one of the students—the girl who always wore a T-shirt with a picture of a cartoon character—gave a stupid answer which, to Ms FitzPatrick's idiot delight, correctly defined 'ourselves' as 'us'. This distraction caught Dylan's attention just long enough for Rod to lean across and snatch the drawing Dylan had been working on, a doodled image of Ms FitzPatrick with a head made of ice-cream. Rod added his own contribution, the image of a rabid wolf attacking the ice-cream, and then leaned over to Dylan's desk again to return it. Dylan looked straight at him, but said nothing until Ms FitzPatrick singled him out to answer another question, about a daydream he'd like to see come true.
'It's been a while since we've had a family outing', said Dylan.
'Those can be fun', Ms FitzPatrick said.
'If I put my mind to it, I should be able to come up with an idea they'll all hate', Dylan went on.
Rod liked the way Ms FitzPatrick couldn't handle that. Too bad the class ended.
The skinny boy with the earrings and the pellet-flicking habit finally moved in on Dylan as they walked away from self-esteem class. 'That was a good one', he said.
Dylan looked at him and wondered about how a confrontation between Kris and this unusual character might turn out. Not that Dylan would be telling Kris anything about him, or anything else. 'What of it?' he said, and shrugged.
Paper-Pellet Boy shrugged back and said, 'You really don't like self-esteem class, do you?'
'I guess it gives me an opportunity to enlarge my collection of paper pellets. Were you wanting them back?'
The other boy held up a hand, palm facing out, and waggled it. 'No, they're a gift. You know, if you want to get out of self-esteem class early, I can give you all the answers to the release test. I've done the whole program six times.'
Dylan found the idea of doing the whole program even once so depressing that he couldn't imagine why anybody would voluntarily undergo it six times. But he didn't care. 'You can give me the answers? What do you want?'
'I just enjoy the opportunity to thumb my nose at the system, by proxy. Although … there is one thing I was puzzled about that you might be able to clear up.'
'Okay. Give me those test answers and I'll do my best.'
Dylan waited while the other boy's notebook was produced and the relevant pages torn out of it and handed to him. He ran an eye over them and said, 'Nothing surprising there. Go on with your question.'
'I happened to see you in the corridor. You noticed a couple against the lockers talking, you were staring at them, and I know I saw you pulling a face about something. What's the story?'
'You saw that? That story is an old story. Did you hear the boy saying he was an only child?'
'That's my younger brother Kris.'
'Your brother? Saying he was an only child? Ouch.'
'I think he actually half-believes that if he only says it often enough he can make it true.' Dylan shook his head. 'Me, I only wish.' He turned to go.
'Good luck with those test answers then.'
Dylan turned back again. 'One other thing, if you don't mind. Can you tell me whether there's a Pizza Forest anywhere around these parts?'
'You mean that place where they have people dressed up in animal costumes singing to you while you eat? Sure, there's one not far away. Why?'
'Because that is a thing that will really make my family suffer.'
He looked around at his parents and his brother. At least this supposed need to do something about his self-esteem had given him the leverage to inflict this on them.
The singers were exhorting them all to join in. His family looked sick.
'Row, row, row your boat …' he began.
Rod sat on his bed watching a man on his favourite television show, Sick, Sad World, interviewing a woman about how she had managed to have affairs with three members of the royal family despite her multiple disabilities. Rod shook his head. The royal family? She needed to be blind to do that. The interviewer was missing the point.
Rod thought it would have been nice to be able to explain this to somebody.
Dylan sat on his bed watching a man on his favourite television show, Sick, Sad World, presenting a story about UFO conventions. The interviewee was a halfwitted girl called Patty, with sadly mismatched features on her unfortunately spotted face (and the worst haircut Dylan had ever seen), who was telling a typically lame alien abduction story.
Dylan reflected on how the way the presenter had opened the story had involved a false contrast, between 'the domain of kooks' and 'big business'. It would have been nice to be able to explain this to somebody.
You couldn't have everything. In fact, he was lucky to have anything. At least next time the self-esteem class met he should be able to pass the test and get released. That was the word all right, 'released'.
Having to stand up in front of a school assembly just because that idiot teacher Ms FitzPatrick thought there was something special about somebody passing that so-called self-esteem test early—that wasn't what Dylan would call a 'release'. There was only a moment's delay while Ms FitzPatrick humiliated herself first, trying to make some sort of point about self-esteem by a lame analogy that rightly met with the audience's scorn. In a moment she'd hand him that stupid certificate and then he'd be exposed out there, expected to address the school from the podium as if there were some point in his saying something to them. Did Ms FitzPatrick think he'd learned something from her class? Did she think there was any point in his trying to pass it on? Did she think it was something that people could be taught?
As he stepped up to the podium with his certificate in hand, there was a scattering of applause—and Paper-Pellet Boy, who was sitting in the centre of the front row, began a fusillade of ear-splitting whistles and thunderous drumming of his feet, embarrassing the rest of the audience almost as much as he embarrassed Dylan, so that they all fell silent. Desperately, Dylan looked around the hall in every other direction—and saw one person who definitely couldn't be taught anything about self-esteem.
Kris was sitting between Kerry and her best friend, both of whom were trying to show off for him. That wouldn't do his status any harm: they were both pretty enough, although neither of them was a cheerleader.
What was really on his mind was that his brother was the centre of attention. It was a good thing that didn't happen often. He didn't want to encourage it. While Dylan was droning on about self-esteem, or whatever, Kerry and her friend agreed loudly with each other that he was a loser who should stop talking, although it was still better than being in algebra class. When Kris's response seemed too low-key to them, they repeated themselves, playing up to him. He tried to give them just enough reaction to reassure them of his interest without making any more of this than necessary. The sooner his brother's moment in the spotlight was over, the better.
He wasn't totally sure what he was worrying about until Dylan showed him by naming him, Kris Brocklethwaite, as the biggest example of self-esteem he knew. Of course, that was true. The bad part was that Dylan said, very loudly, for everybody to hear, that they were brothers.
'Your brother's a geek?' said Kerry.
'You're not a geek as well?' said her friend.
Dylan had no intention of telling his parents about the school assembly, but Kris was so angry about the public humiliation that he poured out the whole story. Since their parents were deliberately blind and deaf to the nature of the brothers' relationship, they remained oblivious to the reasons for Kris's reaction, and of course it wasn't in Kris's power to explain to them. Dylan's parents thought it was generous of him to have thanked his brother publicly. They also thought 'graduating' early from the self-esteem program was a serious achievement, or at least that's what they told him, as if it was what he wanted to hear.
What it did do was give him another idea. He'd used the precariousness of his self-esteem for leverage once already, so he might as well try to use the same manoeuvre just one more time, before the whole subject faded into the distance. His parents, he hoped, wouldn't want to put his 'achievement' at risk by refusing his request for a celebratory family outing.
He just managed to swing it.
Dylan suggested a group photo with the giant cardboard alien.
Kris knew it was parents' job to go along with something like this for their kids' sake, whether they liked it or not. He didn't see why they'd forced him to come along. It was totally unfair. He told them he'd just wait while they got the photograph.
As they walked away, a weird girl came up to him—a hideously unfashionable girl, with a spotty face, and the worst haircut Kris had ever seen.
'Hi!' she said. 'I'm Patty! Isn't it cool here?'
Kris ran after his family, calling them to wait for him.