With only one year left of high school, seventeen-year-old Cliff Sparks is desperate to “come of age”—a.k.a., lose his virginity. But he’s never had much luck with girls. So when he falls for Jillian, a new classmate at first sight, all he can do is worship her from afar. At the same time, Cliff has to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, since he’s pretty sure his unemployed father plans to kick him out of the house the minute he turns eighteen. Time is running out. Cliff is at the edge, on the verge, dangling—and holding on for dear life.
Chapter One: She Walks In, Beauty
Venus is the morning star.
As is Jillian.
Let me explain. My school day starts with Calculus, which is a form of math designed to convince people they want to be History majors in college. Our teacher, Mr. Yuler, doesn’t talk much. He’ll write a problem on the board, then sip coffee from his ever-present mug and walk the aisles while we work at our desks. If you’re stuck, he’ll uncap his pen and circle something he feels you should contemplate. It’s not a bad way to start the day, since, between my after-school jobs and my crazy idea that I should make at least a half-assed effort to do a half-decent job on my homework (which multiplies out to a quarter-decent-ass-job), I generally get less sleep than I need. It would be hard to keep my eyes open for a lecture during first period.
So there we sat, twenty-eight zombified students, all good enough with numbers to have taken the college-prep track through math. I was eventually college bound, I hoped. But I needed to take a year off and save up before I could do anything more than catch some classes at County. Dad lost his job again last year, and Mom had her hours cut at the Maple Lane Bakery. She’d worked there since the first time Dad lost his job. We were keeping our expenses low until things turned around.
But let’s get back to Calculus. I think, somehow, I felt Jillian’s presence before I heard her footsteps or saw her appear in the doorway, where she stood clutching a slip of paper and looking very new to the world of Rismore High School.
There are some things that stab each of us in the heart: a perfect sunset, a flag-draped casket, an unexpected encounter with a favorite childhood toy. Each—the beautiful, the tragic, the nostalgic—grabs part of our spirit in some way.
Jillian had been assembled from a kit of parts labeled WHAT CLIFF LOVES. To describe her, to even hint at the color of her hair or the curve of her lip, would be to reveal too much of my soul. Instead, I’ll let you craft your own Jillian. Think of the kit you’ve labeled WHAT I LOVE. Make her, or him, in that image, breathe life into her form, and place her here at the classroom entrance, inspired. Take your time.
Got it? Great. Let’s move on.
I sat, entranced, as Jillian entered the classroom. I stole glances, and risked several longer stares in her direction after she’d taken her seat. But I knew the reality. She’d never notice me unless I had the misfortune to suffer a memorable death in her presence. Something involving spontaneous flames would do the trick. For the moment, I wasn’t tempted to pursue that approach—or departure. I really didn’t want my encounter with her to be a short story, or a long obituary.
Jillian took the only available seat, three rows to my right, and one row ahead. Most of the guys were staring at her, either boldly or through a series of covert glances. As were the girls.
Nola Lackmore, who sat immediately to my left, cast an appraising eye in Jillian’s direction. I would have loved to hear her thoughts. Do pretty girls—and that was Nola for sure—think bad thoughts about gorgeous girls? Abbie Striver shot an escalating sequence of disapproving glares toward Jillian, as if it were a transgression to be attractive.
Both my best friends were in this class. Robert, two seats to my right, shook his hand in the universal gesture of someone who has touched a hot surface. I couldn’t see the reaction, if any, from Butch, who sat in the left rear corner.
Lucas Delshanon, directly to my right, let out a half-sighed half-muttered, “Whoa…” I couldn’t think of a better word.
Ahead of us, Jillian seemed unaware of the attention. Or maybe she was used to it and chose not to admit awareness.
That was the moment when I spotted an opportunity. Mr. Yuler opened the door of the small closet in the back of the room. He rummaged inside for a minor interval, like someone trying to find the last nub of pepperoni in an overstuffed deli drawer. Then he closed the door and let his shoulders slump in defeat.
I knew exactly what had just happened. Jillian needed a textbook. But the cupboard was bare. I raised my hand in anticipation of Mr. Yuler selecting someone to run over to the other Calculus teacher’s classroom for a copy. as the instant he noticed me, I said, “Want me to check with Ms. Percivel?”
He didn’t seem surprised that I was a half step ahead of him. In reality, I was a whole journey ahead. When I returned from my quest, I’d get the chance to weave my way through the crowded room and give the book directly to Jillian. She’d thank me. Our fingers would touch. I’d flash her a smile, letting her see my great teeth up close, and say something classy like, No prob.
No. Too slangy. No problem?
Yeah. That was better.
“Thanks,” Mr. Yuler said.
“No problem.” I flinched as I realized I had just fired my one silver-tongued bullet. I couldn’t repeat myself. That would make me seem shallow or unimaginative. No problem. I’d think of a better reply by the time I got back. It was a long hall.
I headed down that hall, past the cafeteria, which was just beginning to emit aromatic hints about the species of today’s fried protein, and along the new wing, toward Ms. Percivel’s classroom. Happily, despite my fears of learning otherwise and being forced to return empty-handed, she had an extra copy of the Calculus textbook.
What to say? I ran possibilities through my mind, testing them in a full fantasy enactment of the moment when I gave Jillian the book and she thanked me.
My pleasure …
Not bad. Slightly too refined. I was sure I could do better. The pleasure is all mine.… No. Too wordy. Unless she was a fan of old Jane Austen stuff.
I held up the book and searched the front cover for inspiration. It showed a broad ethnic diversity of students at undiversified desks, hunched over papers, happily solving the problems of integration. No inspiration there.
Maybe I could make a clever calculus reference? I could say, Aaaaaaaaaaaugh!
I did say, “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaugh!”
It wasn’t clever, and it had nothing to do with Calculus, but it was pretty much the response that’s hard-wired into most of us when we plummet unexpectedly. My right foot had just come down not on solid flooring, but on the edge of the steps leading into “the Pit.”
Yeah, there’s a fucking pit in the open area on the other side of the hall from the cafeteria. It’s used as a gathering place for small-group activities, and as a death trap for the unobservant. It has two steep steps that also serve as seats, running along all four sides. I was so busy staring at the book cover and trying to think of what to say to impress Jillian, I’d walked at an angle along the corridor, right into the Pit.
I came down hard. The book went flying. My right hand smacked the floor of the Pit, breaking my fall. It felt like I’d also come close to breaking my hand. I lay there, taking stock of my injuries. I’d smacked my right knee pretty hard on the edge of the bottom step. And my chin. I ran my tongue across the back of my teeth, hoping not to find anything loose. There was a slight metallic taste of blood in my mouth, but nothing felt chipped or broken. I seemed to have escaped with less damage than a fall like that deserved. Lucky me.
I looked around as I crawled to my feet. Nobody had seen me. That was good. The fallen get mocked. It’s the law.
Have a wonderful trip!
Nice of you to drop in!
Down goes Cliff!
Crap. I hurt all over. Knees. Hands. Elbows. Chin. Pride. I retrieved the book and limped back to class, my palms throbbing as the numbness of impact gave way the sting of injury. I winced in pain as I opened the door and hobbled across the room.
“Here,” I said, handing the book to Jillian.
“Thanks.” She flashed a smile that should have melted away all my pain.
“Uhhhh … welcome. Problem. I mean, no.”
Great. I had the articulate wit of a bear coming out of hibernation after bingeing on fermented fruit. I clamped my mouth shut before it could spew more nonsense.
“Yeowch!” I eased the clamp as pain shot through my bruised jaw.
Jillian’s smile morphed into a puzzled stare.
It seemed like a good time to retreat. I slipped back into my seat, which, between the crowded classroom and the stiffening of my injured joints, wasn’t easy.
I already fell for you.
Damn, that would be a totally perfect line, if she’d known about the fall. Witty. Charming. Especially if delivered with a bit of a self-effacing grin. It would have been awesome.
No. It sucked. All my lines sucked. I had no game. As I sat there, drowning in the flood of lost opportunity and imagining the various shades of blue, green, and purple that would soon blossom on my palm, my past dating life flashed before my eyes. It made me want to fall off something much higher than the Pit, or find a pit much deeper.
Copyright © 2016 by David Lubar