It was the first day of classes, the start of a new year. But really it just felt like an extension of the ongoing surrealism that was the life and times of the Masterson home life. Mercedes stood staring at her skinny figure in the mirror. She had just slipped into the usual white T-shirt and black cargo pants that were her quickly becoming her trademark. It didn't help that she really only owned two pairs of pants that fit. But even those needed help from an old belt she'd pillaged from her dad's stuff. She had to poke a few extra, seven, holes to make it work. She had been losing weight fast, too fast.
Her long, dark brunette hair was still dripping wet from the shower she'd just rushed in cold water. Johnny, her brother, wasn't going to let her live it down this morning for using up all the warm water. Though she couldn't remember ever really having much warm water anyway. It was like the trailer park owner was somehow sending them messages, by way of crudely cold liquid to the skin.
She was 14, but felt much older. A hallmark of a kid who had to grow up fast, and in very little time. She turned to get a check of her profile, placing one hand on the small of her back, and the other on her stomach. This flattened her shirt so she could see that she was only a few, maybe three, inches thick in the middle. She figured it would hurt, or that she would constantly feel miserable. But she was surprised that the lack of nutrition didn't seem to bother her at all.
She stepped onto their old, pink weight scale and then subtracted five digits to compensate for the difference lost at the beginning on the old piece of junk’s dial. She was almost 75 pounds. She had gone up three pounds since starting to work out with some old dumbbells of her dad's she'd found two weeks ago. At first she could only get three repetitions in on each arm, but she was up to five now. Each weight was a whopping fifteen pounds.
Since Jimmy Masterson had ran off and left the family with his gambling debts, she had begun to take great pleasure in rummaging through his old stuff. She kept finding all manner of interesting things, but she had to wait to rummage while mom was out otherwise she would inevitably go into some emotional hysteria. She couldn't understand her mom, and refused to do so. The guy was a coward, and idiot who ran away... he's not worth a minute of the day.
Johnny knocked, no pounded, on the bathroom door. "HEY!"
"WHAT?" She yelled back.
"You're taking forever."
"I've been in here for ten minutes, retard!"
He pounded three times harder. "Come on!"
Johnny was a senior this year, and she was glad to constantly remind herself of that fact. He would be graduating and presumably moving out and on to college after this year. That meant it would just be her and the emotional train wreck left in the house, and so long as she could ignore her most of the time things would be peaceful for a change.
"Mercedes!" Her mom was on the other side of the door now. "Hurry up, your brother has been waiting a long time."
"Learn to read a clock!" She growled with toothpaste oozing out of her mouth, she quickly brushed the top row of teeth and almost spit out the paste. She held it back and then swallowed. Beggars can't be choosers.
"Don't be mouthy, Mercedes. Come on." Her mom reprimanded politely. Mercedes couldn't stand that calm, light tone she used to reprimand with. It was more annoying than being yelled at, because it said things like, I'm so disappointed in you. Where did we go wrong? I wish you'd never been born.
She quickly swallowed a cup of water and made certain to moan when she pushed through her impatient mother and brother on the way to the kitchen.
"Idiot." Johnny said and slammed the door.
"Nimrod!" She yelled back at him without turning or stopping.
"Guys," mom was cutting back in again, "Do we have to do this every morning?" Neither child responded, and when she heard the shower turn on she gave up and went to the living room to continue skimming the job listings. She had been desperately trying to get a job since her husband disappeared one day, and she had been turned down so many times. It was a painful procession, but she kept pushing. She had to.
Mercedes opened the refrigerator and saw outdated milk, moldy casserole and bologna sitting next to a half jar of mayonnaise. She couldn't stand the sight, smell, texture and taste of bologna and had made this fact quite clear. She couldn't understand the reasoning of buying it, when turkey was just as cheap. She had to keep up her rebellion of refusing to eat the stuff, otherwise mom would never get the picture. But Johnny kept eating the stuff, which was countering her ploy to get mom to buy something else. Though lately, she hadn't bought much of anything. She figured they were almost completely drained of money, but mom didn't have the heart to say it out loud. If she ever did, she would undoubtedly break into an uncontrollable flood of tears. Mercedes shook her head at the thought, and closed the refrigerator door.
She found one package of Pop Tarts in the cupboard and figured that would suffice for today. She could drink some water from the fountains at school.
The phone rang, which surprised her and she almost didn't answer it. She had figured it was turned off by now, since they hadn't paid the phone bill when it came due last week.
"Hello?" She asked into the phone, wondering who in the world would be calling.
"May I speak with Abigail Masterson, please?"
"Mom! Phone!" She sat the receiver on the counter and her mom rushed into the kitchen, trying to get rid of the wrinkles in her dress (as if it mattered for a phone call). "Who is it?" She asked.
"I'm your secretary now?"
Her mom just rolled her eyes and answered the phone in that polite tone. "Yes? Oh, hello. Yes, I could. OK. Eleven? Yes, that's fine. Thank you so much for calling." She hung up the phone and looked so giddy that Mercedes had to stop and ask what was up. "That, Mercedes, was me getting an interview for a job today." She sighed in great relief, and then went to iron the same grey suit she'd been wearing to interviews for the past month now.
Johnny passed on his way to the door, pulling his backpack over his shoulder on the way out. "You used up all the warm water, jerk."
"There wasn't any anyway."
"Right." The screen door slammed behind him.
The school bus was pulling up outside and kids were getting on to it. Mercedes yelled out at him to hold the bus while she grabbed her bag. She ran into her room, grabbed her backpack and a black, denim vest that was also becoming part of her persona. She shoved the Pop Tarts into her vest pocket and burst out the screen door of their single-wide trailer just in time to see the bus turn the corner.
At least it wasn't raining, maybe a walk would be a good change of pace.
Katherine Vega Chandler immediately felt piercing eyes when she landed on the platform inside the bus. Even Michaels, the bus driver, gave her a quick look, but when she met his eyes he just winked in embarrassment. He didn't seem to mind that she was wearing a black short skirt over a pair of colorful pajama pants, accompanied by six layers of varying shirts, vests and jackets. From a color perspective, the rainbow and Count Dracula were properly represented. Technicolor would be so proud of this color pencil collection of contradictions.
She had shoulder-length hair that was blond with streaks of blue and green on top. Her foundation was too light for her complexion, and her lipstick was deep blue. She had long, black eyelashes and blue eyeliner. Her backpack was black and yellow, and had all manner of trinkets and accessories hanging from it. These rattled and slapped fellow students as she made her way to the very back of the bus. She had skulls, rabbits' feet, vampire figurines and little green men in all different sizes and shapes.
Her mom and dad, Luna and Robert, had argued and fought with her all morning.
"You're not wearing that are you?"
"You look ridiculous."
"You look like a Calvin Klein ad."
"Take that off."
"I'm your mother, put something respectable on!"
"OH, like that low-cut blouse you're wearing?"
"Listen to your mother!"
"You never listened to grandma."
"You look like a tramp."
"You look like plastic."
Robert was a well-respected lawyer and partner of the firm. He was always quick to remind Vega of this, and was constantly demanding integrity out of her. Whatever that is. Luna was a surgeon, which meant she had a stomach that was rock-solid, but she just seemed like a brat... as far as Vega was concerned. Neither Robert nor Luna seemed to understand how their child could be so wild. She really wasn't wild, she just didn't meet the conventions of her high society counterparts and for the time being her parents had quit sporting her around to Christmas parties and such. Robert had to save face, if he was going to maintain his image, and Luna had her reputation to think of when it came to the ladies at the Kiwanis Club. She was treasurer, but was eyeing that president slot in the Kiwanis. Prestige, it was all about prestige.
Vega plopped in the last seat of the bus and loosened her arm from her backpack. She slid down in it until her back was on the seat and she was sitting on the back of the seat in front of her. She took her headphones from around her neck, putting them on, and then turned her Walkman on and all the way up. She crossed her arms and fell asleep to the sounds of Metallica.
She woke when they hit a pothole and got dumped into the floorboard. She cursed under her breath and slithered back into her seat. Paris Fontaine and Cooper Johnston were necking in the seat across from her. "Get a room, Paris."
"Get a castle." Paris shot back.
"You trying out for the cheerleading squad again this year, Paris?"
"Yeah, what do you care?"
"I hear the new cheerleading coach is a woman. For your sake, I hope she's a lesbian."
Paris pouted, grabbed Cooper by the hand and escorted him to another seat further on up the line.
Alone again, Vega slid back into her abnormal position and would have gone back to sleep had it not been for what happened next.
"Don't touch that. Give it back!" Someone yelled above the roar of the engine.
Michaels yelled from the front. "Knock it off!"
She stood up and saw that Cooper and Marcus were harassing Timothy Wilder. The screaming continued, but every time Timothy went to get his backpack back, he'd get pushed and then his rolls of fat would send him into a tizzy of balance issues.
"I said knock it off!" Michaels was looking for a place to stop.
Cooper was rooting around in the bag and making a joke out of everything he found. Everyone was cheering him on, and then he found the jackpot: a diary. He began to read excerpts out loud and Timothy was mad, but also crying as he couldn't get his fat to work for him against the brute of Marcus who kept pushing him back. Michaels was still trying to find a place to pull over.
Vega had enough of this charade, it was stealing away precious napping time. She walked right up to Cooper from behind and gave him a good whack in the back of the head. She took the bag, the diary and tossed them to Timothy. He quickly replaced the diary back into the bag and everyone was disappointed.
Cooper looked up at her, rubbing his head. "Skank."
"Primate." She said and went back to her seat.
"Primate?" Someone asked and they all laughed at her. Michaels winked at her from the large rear view mirror. She wished he could have gotten to it quicker, he was ripped and could have really taught Cooper and Marcus a lesson. But then again, bus drivers don't typically deal with things in a violent manner. She repositioned herself in her seat and went back to sleep.
She woke when they crossed the threshold of the parking lot at Herbert Hoover Junior High School. Suddenly she remembered a bunch of ridiculous visuals she must have been dreaming about. Something about Michaels taking out a gun and shooting up half the bus. She made a face to herself and was one of the last ones to file off of the bus.
Most of the car ride was spent in total silence. His dad didn't even have the courtesy to turn on those wretched oldies he listened to. It was a tortuous way to start a school year, especially at a new school.
Dirk Lang's father had broken the news to him after the fact, and he hated that sort of thing. He just walked into his bedroom one night and said, "Gotta job in Babylon. Pays better, and the benefits are a little nicer too. Can finally have a dental plan. I've already broke the lease with the landlord and have a small place; you know, to start, and we can get something nicer later when we get settled."
A quick and fierce verbal fight had ensued following that revelation, which ended in typical fashion when his dad slammed the door and got drunk on the couch watching a late viewing of 'Howdy Doody Time'. He was certainly an alcoholic, but at least he wasn't the kind that beat people or things up when he went deep into the bottle. He just subdued and said nonsensical things, usually related to what he was watching on television. Like the time he watched Disney's 'The Little Mermaid' after losing that great job at Sachs & Sachs, he got Dirk out of bed to reveal some government conspiracy that he had learned about watching the rock formations under the sea. It was apparently all there, if you were willing to see it. Dirk supposed at the time that was true of just about anything.
When they reached the traffic jam just outside the school, his dad began in on why he had driven him to school. "Look, Dirk, I know this is hard. A new place, a new school. But think of it this way, it's a chance to start over, make new friends. Who knows what this place may hold for you?"
"You're the one that needed to start over, not me. I was doing fine." Dirk sighed when he thought of Misty, there was no way that relationship was going to last. Long distance relationships never last when you can't drive. He figured she had probably already cheated on him at least three times in the few weeks he'd been gone. He tried to break up with her, but she was bound and determined to stay together. Whatever that means. Finally, in desperation, he said OK. She hugged him and cried. Now it was just a matter of waiting for that phone call where she talked about how hard it was being apart, and how she had tried but that she wanted to call it off. He was giving it two weeks tops.
"Aren't those the pants I just bought you?" His dad broke the silence.
"How can there already be holes in the knees?"
"I put them there this morning with scissors."
"Dirk! Those were expensive."
"I like to breathe."
His dad had to bite his tongue. He had to remind himself that he was the adult here. "Can you at least try to make this work?"
"Don't really have much of a choice, do I?"
Dirk stepped out of their old Buick and looked at the imposing building that would soon be his Nanny for the next year. He was still trying to wrap his mind around the idea that he was not fresh meat. Most high schools housed the ninth through the twelfth grades, but in this district of Babylon the ninth graders, or Freshmen, were houses with the eighth graders at Herbert Hoover Junior High School. Which meant , as a Freshman, you were at the top of the food chain. He figured he better enjoy it while he had a chance, because next year he'd be a Sophomore and at the bottom of the food chain again.
The last of the late comers walked through the double-door, east entrance and he followed suit. He watched the three girls that had entered in front of him shuffle up the hallway towards the cafeteria. A big man with a Mario-mustache came up to him.
"Make your way to either the cafeteria or the back gym before the first bell."
"OK." He saw a bathroom nearby. "Can I go to the bathroom first?"
He stepped into the small bathroom which had three urinals and one stall. He stood in front of the mirror and looked at his developing afro. He had red, curly hair that got poofier the longer it got. He had been refusing to cut it for nine months now. It was one, big unruly mess of hair. But he liked it. He always looked disheveled anyway, why should his hair be any different?
He watched through the mirror as three Mexican students came waltzing into the bathroom like they owned the place.
"Hey, man." The one in the middle, and the smallest of the crew, spoke first.
He turned around and faced the three of them. "Sup?"
"You must be new here, man. This is our turf."
Dirk looked around the old, dirty bathroom. "Do you ever get tired of the smell?"
One student started to come at him, but the little one held him back. "You better watch yourself. I am Chico the Man, and I can have you rubbed out like that." He snapped his finger, and another one of them snapped his finger too.
"Oh. I see. Like that." He mockingly snapped his finger.
"Gringo, you're starting to make me mad."
Just as the air was getting thick with tension, the Mario-mustached man entered. "Hey, what's going on in here? Do your business and get out."
Chico gave Dirk some dirty looks as he skirted by and on towards the cafeteria. It was nice to knew he was making so many friends.
The bell began to ring and suddenly a wall of students emerged from the cafeteria. There were preps, jocks, band geeks, choir queers, punks, goths, and freaks. As they came at him, he pulled out his class schedule. His first class was an English class with Mrs. White, it was in room 201. He remembered passing a staircase near the bathrooms, and so quickly turned around and walked away from the crowd of people. On the second floor, he found Mrs. White's room was two doors down from the staircase. He was the first one to enter and she greeted him. She certainly was white, and round like a peach with black hair that was permed up to her head with curls. She wore thick glasses and spoke with a northern accent.
The room was designed with lots of tables with chairs around them, fostering a group environment. He sighed at the thought of having to work in a group of grammar and spelling. He made his way to the back and picked a table next to a window. The room was stuffy, so he cracked the window open to let some air in.
"No deary," Mrs. White started, "It's supposed to rain today, and my bones can't take that humidity. Close the window."
She was quickly getting annoying. He closed the window and pulled out a notebook and pencil. He sat back and watched as students slowly came in one at a time, or two at the most. A couple of preps, two slutty looking chicks who sat front and center for everyone to see, a big guy who looked like he stunk. Later the big guy was joined by a tall guy who also looked like he smelled, and it was confirmed when two preppy girls moved over a table from them noticably showing their disgust. A little girl in black and white came in and looked for an open table, she came over and sat at a table next to his and sat down.
Just before the bell could finish ringing, a colorful girl slid into the class across the tiles. "Not late." She said to Mrs. White.
"Sorry, no food or drinks allowed, deary. You'll have to set that by the door and pick it up on your way out."
"One minute, deary." The girl replied mockingly and drank down the fruit juice in one, long swig and then tossed it into the trash can. "Of course you know this means I'll have to go to the bathroom halfway through class."
Mrs. White was looking a little flustered. "Please just sit down, so I can take roll."
The girl looked around, looking disappointed at the arrangement and the faces that were present. She finally focused her eyes on the back corner where he and the black and white girl were. She came over and grabbed a chair at his table. "Don't get any ideas, bub." She whispered.
"I wouldn't dream of it." He replied.
"If you have any other names or nicknames you prefer to go by, please let me know while we go through the roll call." Mrs. White established for the class and then began the tedious task of taking account of people.
Dirk watched as rain started to fall, and was reminded of home. Or at least, what used to be home. He always hated the rain in Salem, but at least he had friends and knew the city like the back of his hands. They'd been living in Salem for as long as he could remember. They had moved their after mom had died, which was when he was too young to remember anything. Though sometimes he did remember, vaguely, from a third-perspective his mom clutching him tight when he was sick one night. It was a vague memory, but it was the only one he had of her so he couldn't complain.
"Katherine Chandler?" Mrs. White called out.
The colorful girl at his table raised her hand and spoke. "I go by Vega."
"Why?" Mrs. White asked in curiosity.
"It's my middle name."
"No, I mean, why not go by Katherine? It's a pretty name."
Mrs. White shook her head in confusion and continued through the names.
He waved to her, she nodded back.
Vega leaned over and whispered to him. "Lang? Like the German director?"
She scowled at his confusion and sat back. "Uncultured swine."
"Here." Replied the black and white girl.
Moments later the roll call was finished, and Mrs. White quickly moved from one annoying task to another--the seating chart. She neatly seated everyone together, walking around the room as she did so. When she got to the two tables in the back corner, she looked at Dirk and Vega, and then to Mercedes. Her mind wandered from the seating chart for a moment, and improvised. "You," she pointed to Mercedes, "Go ahead and join these two."
Mercedes picked her stuff up and joined Dirk and Vega's table. "Hey." She spoke out of formality, anyone could tell she didn't care to say anything.
"Word that." Vega spoke in understanding.