“Your lack of ambition is truly remarkable.”

Hassan’s hand reached out from behind the shower and grabbed a towel monogrammed HLW. He emerged moments later, and walked into Colin’s room, towel around his sizable waist.

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“Listen, kafir. Seriously. Lay off about me going to school. Let me be happy; I’ll let you be happy. Giving each other shit is fine, but there comes a point.”

“Sorry. I didn’t know the point had come.” Colin sat down on the bed, pulling on a KranialKidz T-shirt he’d been given.

“Well, you’ve brought it up like 284 consecutive days.”

“Maybe we should have a word,” Colin said. “For when it’s gone too far. Like, just a random word and then we’ll know to back off.”

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Standing there in his towel, Hassan looked up at the ceiling and finally said, “Dingleberries.”

“Dingleberries.” Colin agreed, anagramming in his head. Dingleberries was an anagrammatic jackpot.38

“You’re anagramming, aren’t you, motherfugger?” asked Hassan.

“Yeah,” Colin said.

“Maybe that’s why she dumped you. Always anagramming, never listening.”

“Dingleberries,” said Colin.

“Just wanted to give you a chance to use it. Okay, let’s go eat. I’m hungrier than a kid on his third day of fat camp.” As they made their way down a hall to a spiral staircase that led to the living room, Colin asked—as close to a whisper as he could muster—“So why do you think Hollis wants to give us jobs, really?”

Hassan stopped on the staircase, and Colin with him. “She wants to make me happy. We fatties have a bond, dude. It’s like a Secret Society. We’ve got all kinds of shit you don’t know about. Handshakes, special fat people dances—we got these secret fugging lairs in the center of the earth and we go down there in the middle of the night when all the skinny kids are sleeping and eat cake and fried chicken and shit. Why d’you think Hollis is still sleeping, kafir? Because we were up all night in the secret lair injecting butter frosting into our veins. She’s giving us jobs because a fatty always trusts another fatty.”

“You’re not fat. You’re pudgy.”

“Dude, you just saw my man-tits when I got out of the shower.”

“They’re not that bad,” said Colin.

“Oh, that’s it! You asked for it!” Hassan pulled his T-shirt up to his collarbone and Colin glanced over at Hass’s hairy chest, which featured—okay, there’s no denying it—minor breasts. An A cup, but still. Hassan smiled with great satisfaction, pulled down his shirt, and headed down the stairs.

It took an hour for Hollis to get ready, during which time Hassan and Lindsey chatted and watched The Today Show while Colin sat at the far edge of the couch and read one of the books he’d stuffed in his backpack—a Lord Byron anthology including the poems Lara and Don Juan. He liked it pretty well. When Lindsey interrupted him, he’d just come to a line in Lara he liked quite a lot: “Eternity bids thee to forget.”

“Whatcha reading there, smartypants?” asked Lindsey. Colin held up the cover. “Don Juan,” she said, pronouncing the Juan like Wan. “Trying to learn how to avoid getting dumped?”

“Jew -un,” Colin corrected. “It’s pronounced Don Jew -un,” he said.39

“Not interesting,” Hassan pointed out. But Lindsey seemed to find it more aggravating than not-interesting. She rolled her eyes and picked up the breakfast plates from the coffee table. Hollis Wells came downstairs, wrapped in what looked, for all the world, like a flowery toga.

“What we’re doing,” she spoke quickly, “is we’re putting together an oral history of Gutshot, for future generations. I’ve been pulling people off the line to do interviews for a couple of weeks, but I ain’t gotta now that you’re here. Anyway, the downfall of this whole operation so far has been gossip—everybody chattering ’bout what everyone else says or doesn’t say. But y’all don’t have a reason in the world to talk about whether or not Ellie Mae liked her husband when she married him in 1937. So—it’s you two. And Linds, who everybody trusts—”

“I’m very honest,” Lindsey explained, cutting off her mom.

“To a fault, dear. But yes. So, you get these people talking and they won’t shut up, I assure you. I want six hours of new tape turned in to me every day. But steer them toward real history, if you can. I’m doing this for my grandkids, not for a gossip fest.”

Lindsey coughed, mumbled, “Bullshit,” and then coughed again.

Hollis’s eyes grew wide. “Lindsey Lee Wells, you put a quarter in the swear jar right this minute!”

“Shit,” Lindsey said. “Dick. Craptastic.” She glided over to the fireplace mantel, and placed a dollar bill in a glass Mason jar. “Don’t have any change, Hollis,” she said. Colin couldn’t help but laugh; Hollis glowered.

“Well,” she said, “y’all should head out. Six hours of tape, and be back by supper.”

“Wait, who’s gonna open up the store?” asked Lindsey.

“I’ll just send Colin out there for a while.”

“I’m supposed to be tape recording strangers,” Colin pointed out.

“The other Colin,” Hollis said. “Lindsey’s,” and then she sighed, “boyfriend. He hasn’t been showing up at work half the time, anyway. Now, y’all git.”

In the Hearse, with Hassan driving down the exceedingly long driveway away from the Pink Mansion, Lindsey said, “Lindsey’s, sigh, boyfriend. It’s always Lindsey’s, sigh, boyfriend. Jesus Christ. Anyway, listen, just drop me off at the store.”

Hassan looked up and spoke to Lindsey through the rearview mirror. “No fugging way. That’s how horror movies start. We drop you off, walk into some stranger’s house, and five minutes later some psycho’s lobbing off my nuts with a machete while his schizophrenic wife makes Colin do push-ups on a bed of hot coals. You’re coming with us.”

“No offense to y’all, but I haven’t seen Colin since yesterday.”

“No offense to that fugger,” Hassan responded, “but Colin is sitting in the passenger seat reading Don JEW-UN. You’re dating The Other Colin, aka TOC.”

Colin wasn’t reading anymore; he was listening to Hassan defend him. Or at least he thought Hassan was defending him. You could never quite tell with Hassan. “I mean, my boy over here is clearly the Primary Colin. There’s no one like him. Colin, say ‘unique’ in as many languages as you can.”

Colin brought them forth quickly. This was a word he knew. “Um, único,40 unico,41 einzigartig,42 unique,43 уникáљнњiй,44 µoυακός,45 singularis, 46 farid.”47

Hassan was good at his job, no doubt—Colin felt a rush of affection toward him, and the recitation of the words caused something to wash over the omnipresent hole in his gut. It felt, just for a moment, like medicine.

Lindsey smiled at Colin through the rearview mirror. “Lord, my cup of Colins runneth over.” She smiled. “One to teach me French, one to French me.” She laughed at her own joke, then said, “Well, okay. I’ll go. I wouldn’t want to see Colin get his nuts chopped off, after all. Either Colin, really. But you gotta take me to the store after.” Hassan agreed, and then Lindsey led them down past what she called the “Taco Hell” to a little side street lined with small, single-story houses. They pulled into a driveway. “Most people’re at work,” she explained. “But Starnes should be home.”

He greeted them at the door. Starnes’s lower jaw was missing; he appeared to have a kind of duck bill covered in skin instead of a chin or jaw or teeth. And yet he still tried to smile for Lindsey. “Sugar,” he said, “how are you?”

“I’m always good when I get to see you, Starnes,” she said, hugging him. His eyes lit up, and then Lindsey introduced him to Colin and Hassan. When the old man noticed Colin staring, Starnes explained, “Cancer. Now, y’all come in and sit.”

The house smelled like musty old couches and unfinished wood. It smelled, Colin thought, like cobwebs or hazy memories. It smelled like K-19’s basement. And the smell brought him back so viscerally, to a time when she loved him—or he at least felt like she did—that his gut ached anew. He closed his eyes tight for a second and waited for the feeling to pass, but it wouldn’t. For Colin, nothing ever passed.

The Beginning (of the End)

Katherine XIX wasn’t quite yet the XIX when they hung out alone together for the third time. Although the signs seemed positive, he couldn’t bring himself to ask her if she wanted to date him, and he certainly couldn’t just lean in and kiss her. Colin frequently faltered when it came to the step of actual kissing. He had a theory on this subject, actually, entitled the Rejection Minimization Theorem (RMT):

The act of leaning in to kiss someone, or asking to kiss them, is fraught with the possibility of rejection, so the person least likely to get rejected should do the leaning in or the asking. And that person, at least in high-school heterosexual relationships, is definitely the girl. Think about it: boys, basically, want to kiss girls. Guys want to make out. Always. Hassan aside, there’s rarely a time when a boy is thinking, “Eh, I think I’d rather not kiss a girl today.” Maybe if a guy is actually, literally on fire, he won’t be thinking about hooking up. But that’s about it. Whereas girls are very fickle about the business of kissing. Sometimes they want to make out; sometimes they don’t. They’re an impenetrable fortress of unknowability, really.

Ergo: girls should always make the first move, because (a) they are, on the whole, less likely to be rejected than guys, and (b) that way, girls will never get kissed unless they want to be kissed.

Unfortunately for Colin, there is nothing logical about kissing, and so his theory never worked. But because he always waited so incredibly long to kiss a girl, he rarely faced rejection.

He called the future Katherine XIX that Friday after school and asked her out for coffee the next day, and she said yes. It was the same coffee shop where they’d had their first two meetings—perfectly pleasant events filled with so much sexual tension that he couldn’t help but get a little bit turned on just from her casually touching his hand. He would put his hands up on the table, in fact, because he wanted them within her reach.

The coffee shop was a few miles from Katherine’s house and four buildings down from Colin’s. Called Café Sel Marie, it served some of the best coffee in Chicago, which didn’t matter at all to Colin, because Colin didn’t like coffee. He liked the idea of coffee quite a lot—a warm drink that gave you energy and had been for centuries associated with sophisticates and intellectuals. But coffee itself tasted to him like caffeinated stomach bile. So he did an end-around on the unfortunate taste by drowning his java in cream, for which Katherine gently teased him that afternoon. It rather goes without saying that Katherine drank her coffee black. Katherines do, generally. They like their coffee like they like their ex-boyfriends: bitter.

Hours later, after four cups of coffee between them, she wanted to show him a movie. “It’s called The Royal Tenenbaums,” she said. “It’s about a family of prodigies.”

Colin and Katherine took the Brown Line southeast toward Wrigleyville, and then walked five blocks to her house, a narrow, two-story building. Katherine led him down to her basement. Floored with wavy linoleum tiles, the damp, dank place featured an old couch, no windows, and very low ceilings (they were 6’3‘ to Colin’s 6’1‘). It made for a poor living area, but it was an awesome theater. It was so dark that you could sink into the couch and disappear into the movie.

Colin liked the movie pretty well; he laughed a lot, anyway, and he found comfort in a world where all the characters who had been smart child ren grew up to be really fascinating, unique adults (even if they were all s c rewed up). When it was over, Katherine and Colin sat in the dark together. The basement was the only genuinely dark place Colin had ever seen in Chicago—day and night, orange-gray light seeped through any place with windows.

“I just love the sound track,” Katherine said. “It has such a cool feel.”

“Yeah,” Colin said. “And I liked the characters. I even liked the horrible dad a little.”

“Right, me too,” Katherine said. He could see her blond hair and the outline of her face but little else. His hand, which had been holding hers since about thirty minutes into the movie, was cramped and sweaty, but he didn’t want to be the one to pull away. She went on, “I mean, he’s selfish, but everyone is selfish.”

“Right,” Colin said.

“So is that what it’s like? To be a, uh, prodigy or whatever?”

“Um, not really. All the prodigies in that movie were really hot, for instance,” he joked, and she laughed and said, “So are all the ones I know,” and then he exhaled sharply and looked up at her and almost—but no. He wasn’t sure and couldn’t handle the thought of rejection. “Anyway, plus in that movie it’s like they are all just born talented. I’m not like that, you know. I mean, I’ve worked at least ten hours a day, every day, since I was three,” he said, with no small measure of pride. He did think of it as work—the reading and the practicing of languages and pronunciation, the recitation of facts, the careful examination of every text laid before him.

“So what are you good at, exactly, anyway? I mean, I know you’re good at everything, but what are you so good at besides languages?”

“I’m good with codes and stuff. And I’m good at, like, linguistic tricks like anagramming. That’s my favorite thing, really. I can anagram anything.” He’d never before told a Katherine about his anagramming. He’d always figured it would bore them.

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