And then, all together: “WE GOT HIGHER SATs.”
“Hip Hip Hip Hooray!” the Colonel cried.
“YOU’LL BE WORKIN’ FOR US SOMEDAY!”
The opposing team’s cheerleaders tried to answer our cheers with “The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire! Hell is in your future if you give in to desire,” but we could always do them one better.
“YOU’RE MUCH BIGGER, BUT WE ARE SMARTER!”
When the visitors shoot a free throw on most every court in the country, the fans make a lot of noise, screaming and stomping their feet. It doesn’t work, because players learn to tune out white noise. At Culver Creek, we had a much better strategy. At first, everyone yelled and screamed like in a normal game. But then everyone said, “Shh!” and there was absolute silence. Just as our hated opponent stopped dribbling and prepared for his shot, the Colonel stood up and screamed something. Like:
“For the love of God, please shave your back hair!” Or:
“I need to be saved. Can you minister to me after your shot?!”
Toward the end of the third quarter, the Christian-school coach called a time-out and complained to the ref about the Colonel, pointing at him angrily. We were down 56-13. The Colonel stood up. “What?! You have a problem with me!?”
The coach screamed, “You’re bothering my players!”
“THAT’S THE POINT, SHERLOCK!” the Colonel screamed back. The ref came over and kicked him out of the gym. I followed him.
“I’ve gotten thrown out of thirty-seven straight games,” he said.
“Yeah. Once or twice, I’ve had to go really crazy. I ran onto the court with eleven seconds left once and stole the ball from the other team. It wasn’t pretty. But, you know. I have a streak to maintain.”
The Colonel ran ahead of me, gleeful at his ejection, and I jogged after him, trailing in his wake. I wanted to be one of those people who have streaks to maintain, who scorch the ground with their intensity. But for now, at least I knew such people, and they needed me, just like comets need tails.
one hundred eight days before
THE NEXT DAY, Dr. Hyde asked me to stay after class. Standing before him, I realized for the first time how hunched his shoulders were, and he seemed suddenly sad and kind of old. “You like this class, don’t you?” he asked.
“You’ve got a lifetime to mull over the Buddhist understanding of interconnectedness.” He spoke every sentence as if he’d written it down, memorized it, and was now reciting it. “But while you were looking out the window, you missed the chance to explore the equally interesting Buddhist belief in being present for every facet of your daily life, of being truly present. Be present in this class. And then, when it’s over, be present out there,” he said, nodding toward the lake and beyond.
one hundred one days before
ON THE FIRST MORNING of October, I knew something was wrong as soon as I woke up enough to turn off the alarm clock. The bed didn’t smell right. And I didn’t feel right. It took me a groggy minute before I realized: I felt cold. Well, at the very least, the small fan clipped to my bunk seemed suddenly unnecessary. “It’s cold!” I shouted.
“Oh God, what time is it?” I heard above me.
“Eight-oh-four,” I said.
The Colonel, who didn’t have an alarm clock but almost always woke up to take a shower before mine went off, swung his short legs over the side of the bed, jumped down, and dashed to his dresser. “I suppose I missed my window of opportunity to shower,” he said as he put on a green CULVER CREEK BASKETBALL T-shirt and a pair of shorts. “Oh well. There’s always tomorrow. And it’s not cold. It’s probably eighty.”
Grateful to have slept fully dressed, I just put on shoes, and the Colonel and I jogged to the classrooms. I slid into my seat with twenty seconds to spare. Halfway through class, Madame O’Malley turned around to write something in French on the blackboard, and Alaska passed me a note.
Nice bedhead. Study at McDonald’s for lunch?
Our first significant precalc test was only two days away, so Alaska grabbed the six precalc kids she did not consider Weekday Warriors and piled us into her tiny blue two-door. By happy coincidence, a cute sophomore named Lara ended up sitting on my lap. Lara’d been born in Russia or someplace, and she spoke with a slight accent. Since we were only four layers of clothes from doing it, I took the opportunity to introduce myself.
“I know who you are.” She smiled. “You’re Alaska’s freend from FlowReeda.”
“Yup. Get ready for a lot of dumb questions, ’cause I suck at precalc,” I said.
She started to answer, but then she was thrown back against me as Alaska shot out of the parking lot.
“Kids, meet Blue Citrus. So named because she is a lemon,” Alaska said. “Blue Citrus, meet the kids. If you can find them, you might want to fasten your seat belts. Pudge, you might want to serve as a seat belt for Lara.” What the car lacked in speed, Alaska made up for by refusing to move her foot from the accelerator, damn the consequences. Before we even got off campus, Lara was lurching helplessly whenever Alaska took hard turns, so I took Alaska’s advice and wrapped my arms around Lara’s waist.
“Thanks,” she said, almost inaudibly.
After a fast if reckless three miles to McDonald’s, we ordered seven large french fries to share and then went outside and sat on the lawn. We sat in a circle around the trays of fries, and Alaska taught class, smoking while she ate.
Like any good teacher, she tolerated little dissension. She smoked and talked and ate for an hour without stopping, and I scribbled in my notebook as the muddy waters of tangents and cosines began to clarify. But not everyone was so fortunate.
As Alaska zipped through something obvious about linear equations, stoner/baller Hank Walsten said, “Wait, wait. I don’t get it.”
“That’s because you have eight functioning brain cells.”
“Studies show that marijuana is better for your health than those cigarettes,” Hank said.
Alaska swallowed a mouthful of french fries, took a drag on her cigarette, and blew smoke at Hank. “I may die young,” she said. “But at least I’ll die smart. Now, back to tangents.”
one hundred days before
“NOT TO ASK the obvious question, but why Alaska?” I asked. I’d just gotten my precalc test back, and I was awash with admiration for Alaska, since her tutoring had paved my way to a B-plus. She and I sat alone in the TV lounge watching MTV on a drearily cloudy Saturday. Furnished with couches left behind by previous generations of Culver Creek students, the TV room had the musty air of dust and mildew—and, perhaps for that reason, was almost perennially unoccupied. Alaska took a sip of Mountain Dew and grabbed my hand in hers.
“Always comes up eventually. All right, so my mom was something of a hippie when I was a kid. You know, wore oversize sweaters she knitted herself, smoked a lot of pot, et cetera. And my dad was a real Republican type, and so when I was born, my mom wanted to name me Harmony Springs Young, and my dad wanted to name me Mary Frances Young.” As she talked, she bobbed her head back and forth to the MTV music, even though the song was the kind of manufactured pop ballad she professed to hate.
“So instead of naming me Harmony or Mary, they agreed to let me decide. So when I was little, they called me Mary. I mean, they called me sweetie or whatever, but like on school forms and stuff, they wrote Mary Young. And then on my seventh birthday, my present was that I got to pick my name. Cool, huh? So I spent the whole day looking at my dad’s globe for a really cool name. And so my first choice was Chad, like the country in Africa. But then my dad said that was a boy’s name, so I picked Alaska.”
I wish my parents had let me pick my name. But they went ahead and picked the only name firstborn male Halters have had for a century. “But why Alaska?” I asked her.
She smiled with the right side of her mouth. “Well, later, I found out what it means. It’s from an Aleut word, Alyeska. It means ‘that which the sea breaks against,’ and I love that. But at the time, I just saw Alaska up there. And it was big, just like I wanted to be. And it was damn far away from Vine Station, Alabama, just like I wanted to be.”
I laughed. “And now you’re all grown up and fairly far away from home,” I said, smiling. “So congratulations.” She stopped the head bobbing and let go of my (unfortunately sweaty) hand.
“Getting out isn’t that easy,” she said seriously, her eyes on mine like I knew the way out and wouldn’t tell her. And then she seemed to switch conversational horses in midstream. “Like after college, know what I want to do? Teach disabled kids. I’m a good teacher, right? Shit, if I can teach you precalc, I can teach anybody. Like maybe kids with autism.”
She talked softly and thoughtfully, like she was telling me a secret, and I leaned in toward her, suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling that we must kiss, that we ought to kiss right now on the dusty orange couch with its cigarette burns and its decades of collected dust. And I would have: I would have kept leaning toward her until it became necessary to tilt my face so as to miss her ski-slope nose, and I would have felt the shock of her so-soft lips. I would have. But then she snapped out of it.
“No,” she said, and I couldn’t tell at first whether she was reading my kiss-obsessed mind or responding to herself out loud. She turned away from me, and softly, maybe to herself, said, “Jesus, I’m not going to be one of those people who sits around talking about what they’re gonna do. I’m just going to do it. Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.”
“Huh?” I asked.
“You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present.”
I guess that made sense. I had imagined that life at the Creek would be a bit more exciting than it was—in reality, there’d been more homework than adventure—but if I hadn’t imagined it, I would never have gotten to the Creek at all.
She turned back to the TV, a commercial for a car now, and made a joke about Blue Citrus needing its own car commercial. Mimicking the deep-voiced passion of commercial voice-overs, she said, “It’s small, it’s slow, and it’s shitty, but it runs. Sometimes. Blue Citrus: See Your Local Used-Car Dealer.” But I wanted to talk more about her and Vine Station and the future.
“Sometimes I don’t get you,” I said.
She didn’t even glance at me. She just smiled toward the television and said, “You never get me. That’s the whole point.”
ninety-nine days before
I SPENT MOST of the next day lying in bed, immersed in the miserably uninteresting fictional world of Ethan Frome, while the Colonel sat at his desk, unraveling the secrets of differential equations or something. Although we tried to ration our smoke breaks amid the shower’s steam, we ran out of cigarettes before dark, necessitating a trip to Alaska’s room. She lay on the floor, holding a book over her head.
“Let’s go smoke,” he said.
“You’re out of cigarettes, aren’t you?” she asked without looking up.
“Got five bucks?” she asked.
“Pudge?” she asked.
“Yeah, all right.” I fished a five out of my pocket, and Alaska handed me a pack of twenty Marlboro Lights. I knew I’d smoke maybe five of them, but so long as I subsidized the Colonel’s smoking, he couldn’t really attack me for being another rich kid, a Weekday Warrior who just didn’t happen to live in Birmingham.
We grabbed Takumi and walked down to the lake, hiding behind a few trees, laughing. The Colonel blew smoke rings, and Takumi called them “pretentious,” while Alaska followed the smoke rings with her fingers, stabbing at them like a kid trying to pop bubbles.
And then we heard a branch break. It might have been a deer, but the Colonel busted out anyway. A voice directly behind us said, “Don’t run, Chipper,” and the Colonel stopped, turned around, and returned to us sheepishly.
The Eagle walked toward us slowly, his lips pursed in disgust. He wore a white shirt and a black tie, like always. He gave each of us in turn the Look of Doom.
“Y’all smell like a North Carolina tobacco field in a wildfire,” he said.
We stood silent. I felt disproportionately terrible, like I had just been caught fleeing the scene of a murder. Would he call my parents?
“I’ll see you in Jury tomorrow at five,” he announced, and then walked away. Alaska crouched down, picked up the cigarette she had thrown away, and started smoking again. The Eagle wheeled around, his sixth sense detecting Insubordination To Authority Figures. Alaska dropped the cigarette and stepped on it. The Eagle shook his head, and even though he must have been crazy mad, I swear to God he smiled.
“He loves me,” Alaska told me as we walked back to the dorm circle. “He loves all y’all, too. He just loves the school more. That’s the thing. He thinks busting us is good for the school and good for us. It’s the eternal struggle, Pudge. The Good versus the Naughty.”
“You’re awfully philosophical for a girl that just got busted,” I told her.
“Sometimes you lose a battle. But mischief always wins the war.”
ninety-eight days before
ONE OF THE UNIQUE THINGS about Culver Creek was the Jury. Every semester, the faculty elected twelve students, three from each class, to serve on the Jury. The Jury meted out punishment for nonexpellable offenses, for everything from staying out past curfew to smoking. Usually, it was smoking or being in a girl’s room after seven. So you went to the Jury, you made your case, and they punished you. The Eagle served as the judge, and he had the right to overturn the Jury’s verdict (just like in the real American court system), but he almost never did.