His saying that bit about being different sort of shocks me, because I never really thought about teachers feeling the way I sometimes do here at school, but I’m nodding seriously like I understand what he’s telling me, and all the while I’m wondering what the hell is under his shirtsleeves.

He writes his cell phone number down in green ink, hands me the slip of paper, and says, “Write the letters from the future, Leonard. Those people want to meet you. Your life is going to get so much better. I promise you that. Just hold on as best you can—and believe in the future. Trust me. This is only a small part of your life. A blink. And if you find that you aren’t able to believe it, call me anytime and we’ll talk. I’ll answer your question then. Just as soon as you need it. I promise.”

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“Why are you being so nice to me?” I say.

“People should be nice to you, Leonard. You’re a human being. You should expect people to be nice. Those people in your future, the ones who are writing letters to you—they will be nice to you. Imagine it and it will be so. Write the letters.”

I say, “Okay. Thanks, Herr Silverman,” and then I get the hell out of there.

If only the world were full of Herr Silvermans. But it isn’t. It’s mostly full of übermorons like the majority of my classmates and sprinkled with sadistic assholes like Asher Beal.

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I don’t go to Guidance.

No root beer lollipop today.

I have one present left to deliver.

I have a mission to complete.

TWENTY

The last good birthday celebration Asher Beal and I had was seven or so years ago, back before all the really bad stuff started to happen.

At his party, when he unwrapped his present from me, he found a piece of paper with a question mark on it.

“What’s this?” he said, squinting.

The sound of wooden pins being struck by bowling balls echoed through the alley. His oblivious but kind mother had booked two lanes.37

“Just the best birthday present you’ll ever receive,” I said.

“I don’t get it,” Asher said.

I remember the other kids at the party giving me strange looks—like what the fuck kind of present is a question mark on a piece of paper?38

“You will,” I said confidently.

“When?”

“Soon.”

“Okay,” Asher said, shrugged, and then opened the gifts other kids had brought—WWE DVDs, video games, gift cards—typical stuff.

I remember feeling proud—like I was taking care of my best friend in a way that would blow his mind. Everyone else’s mom just thoughtlessly bought generic presents that any eleven-year-old kid would forget about in a few days.

I invited Asher to spend the night at my house that weekend, and when he arrived, thinking we were just going to play video games and eat pizza, my dad came in and—employing this funny voice—said, “Mr. Beal, your car is ready.”

“What?” Asher said and then laughed. He was confused, had no clue, which made me so happy.39

Because my dad was in a good mood,40 he pretended to be our hired driver, keeping his face blank, like he didn’t know us, when he said, “Mr. Peacock has arranged for me to drive you to Atlantic City where you will attend a rock ’n’ roll concert this evening.”

Asher’s eyes lit up. “Don’t even tell me you got Green Day tickets. Did you?”

I smiled and said, “Happy birthday.”

His face exploded. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” he said, pumping his fists in the air, and then he sort of hugged and tackled me onto the couch.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt better than I did at that moment, maybe because I’ve never made another human being that kind of I-will-joyfully-tackle-you happy.

The entire ride to Atlantic City, Asher talked about Green Day and what they’d probably play and how he just wanted to hear “American Idiot,” because that was his favorite song. It was going to be his first official concert. I sat next to him, listening, feeding off his excitement.

My dad took us to an Irish pub for dinner and drank a few pints before he escorted us to the concert, which was in one of the casinos. I can’t remember which one because they all look the same to me. When Asher realized we had front-row seats, he hugged me again and said, “You’re the man, Leonard Peacock! Seriously! First row? First row? How?”

My dad still had connections back then, but I didn’t say that. I just sort of shrugged modestly.

It felt so fucking good making my friend happy.

Like I was a hero.

Green Day came on and performed.

When they played “American Idiot,” he grabbed my biceps, screamed in my face, and then sang every word.

I was never a big Green Day fan, but it was the best concert I’ve ever attended, mostly because it was so much fun to see Asher experience his favorite band live—knowing that I made it happen, that I was the hero that night, that I’d given him the perfect present, and all those assholes at his birthday party—all the kids in our class who squinted at the question mark I drew on a piece of paper—just didn’t get it, me, or life in general.

Wearing Green Day concert shirts featuring heart-shaped grenades, we met my dad afterward at the designated place right outside the casino floor and I could hardly hear him when he asked about the show, because my ears were ringing.

“It rocked!” Asher kept saying. “So awesome!”

“All right, all right,” Dad said all cool, like he used to whenever he’d had a few drinks and his eyes were glassy. “All right, all right.” He’d say it fast and sort of rhythmic, putting the accent on the second ri and dropping the last t, so it sounded like “all-right, all-rye.”

Toward the end of our time together, when Dad really went off the deep end, you could say anything to him and he’d say, “All-right, all-rye.” “Dad, I failed Earth Science.” “All-right, all-rye.” “Mom’s banging this French fashion designer she used to model for.” “All-right, all-rye.” “I just lit your balls on fire, Dad.” “All-right, all-rye.” He became one of those dolls that repeat a catchphrase every time you pull its string. “All-right, all-rye.” “All-right, all-rye.” “All-right, all-rye.”

In our hotel room my dad said, “You guys can rent a movie, but stay in the room. All-right, all-rye? I’m going back down to the floor. Feeling lucky tonight,” which was no surprise, because my dad was always leaving me alone, even when I was a kid.

Asher and I watched the clock for ten minutes after my dad left, just long enough for him to start gambling, before we began exploring the hotel.

We ran down the endless mazelike hallways, knocking on the doors we passed, emptying the ice machines and having ice-ball fights in the stairwell; took turns sitting in the maid’s cart and pushing each other into walls; tried to sneak into an after-hours dance club and got caught by the bouncer, who laughed his ass off when—with straight faces—we told him it was Asher’s twenty-first birthday. We searched the casino floor for the members of Green Day and got kicked out, scarfed down some late-night pizza, and ended up sitting on the boardwalk with our elbows on the railing and our feet dangling over the side.

“Man, this night was the shit!” Asher said. “Best birthday present ever. Hands-down.”

“Yeah, you know it,” I remember saying, as we listened to the waves crashing somewhere in the darkness.

“Do you think we’ll come back to this hotel when we’re adults?” Asher asked. “Do you think we’ll still be hanging out?”

If you would have put my grandfather’s Nazi P-38 handgun to my eleven-year-old head, told me to tell the truth or die, and then asked me if Asher and I would be best friends for life, I would have said yes on that night without hesitation.41

“Probably,” I said, and then we just sat dangling our feet off the boardwalk.

We really didn’t say much more than that, nothing all that extraordinary happened—just typical stupid-ass kid stuff.42

Maybe it was the type of high only kids can get and understand.

There were hundreds of adults drinking alcohol and gambling and smoking that night, but I bet none of them felt the high Asher and I did.

Maybe that’s why adults drink, gamble, and do drugs—because they can’t get naturally lit anymore.

Maybe we lose that ability as we get older.

Asher sure did.

TWENTY-ONE

One day after a long, depressing afternoon wearing my funeral suit and studying miserable adults in Philadelphia, I exited my town’s train station, and this girl43 I had never seen before stuck a piece of paper in my face. Then she said, “The way, the truth, and the light!”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Here’s a tract. Read all about it.”

I took the piece of paper, which was like a mini–comic book. The pictures and words were all in red ink, which looked dramatic and intense. On the front cover was a picture of a smiling man. Underneath his kind face were these words: You can be the nicest guy in the world, but without Jesus in your heart, you are going to hell.

I remember laughing when I read it, because it seemed so over-the-top—like a joke maybe. And I wondered if this throwback-looking girl was playing some sort of game—like this was just part of her spiderweb, her trap.

“Who are you?” I said, trying to sound cool and collected and Bogie-like.

“My name is Lauren Rose. And I’m here to show you the way. Tell you the good news.”

Her name was Lauren and she was a tall blond.

Lauren.

If I were the type of person who believed in signs, I would have been a little freaked, because she actually looked very much like a youngish version of Lauren Bacall, a tall blond who was also cat-faced, and was devastatingly beautiful in her prime—irresistible. And after watching Bogie win Bacall so many times in black-and-white Hollywood land, I felt a sort of inevitability. This would be the first girl I would kiss. I declared it in my mind—set the goal, and then I locked on like a greyhound chasing a rabbit.

“What good news?” I asked, trying to sound calm, suave, and confident as black-and-white Bogie—pretending that we were in The Big Sleep. “Because I sure could use some.”

“That Jesus Christ died for your sins.”

“Oh.”

I didn’t know how I felt about that, and her selling religion seemed to snap me out of the scene for a moment, but I had already set the goal—and I knew that Bogie always gets Bacall no matter what the odds, no matter how many bad guys are in his way. So I tried to change the subject.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Do you go to high school here in town?”

“No, I don’t,” she said to me, and then said, “Jesus loves you,” to a group of businessmen who ignored her and the tract she was trying to hand them. They didn’t even look at her. It was like she was invisible. And while I’m not really one for getting into debates with religious people either, I felt bad for Lauren, because she had this desperate look in her eyes—the kind that needs someone else to make it go away. I imagined she was invisible to most commuters, who only wanted to go home after a long day of work, which I knew from many hours of observation.

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