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Chapter One: Zero Tolerance Policy

 

Peri Jamesey snaked her fingers into the webbed side pocket of the purple Jansport slung over her shoulder and pulled out a hair Scünchi fused with a nest of strands from her long, cappuccino-brown hair.

“Here.” She somberly handed the Scünchi to Lacey without breaking stride. “First rule of girlfights: Get your hair up and out of the way.”

“Thanks,” whispered Lacey. She had not meant to whisper. It was like trying to moderate her voice while she had earbuds in, only instead of Taylor Swift, it was her own heartbeat thrumming through her ears.

“Breathe,” Peri growled.

Lacey nodded and looked down at the cracks in the sidewalk ticking away the shrinking buffer between the girls and Renee “The Wrench” Rollie. Lacey wanted to stop for a moment to fix her hair, but Peri’s determined pace had a gravity and Lacey was swept along. Lacey twisted her auburn mane back and forth through loops in the hair band as she walked. Lacey knew Wrench Rollie wasn’t worrying about her hair. Wrench Rollie had the short butch nap of a long-haul trucker to match the clichés of her leather vests and chained wallet.

“You put on the sports bra like I told you?” Peri asked.

“Yeah.”

“And you put your regular bra over the top, like I said?”

“Yeah. It looks stupid and feels weird. I’m sweating like a goat.”

“If she rips your shirt off in front of all those kids, you’re going to be glad you double-wrapped the girls. Trust me.”

“I trust you,” Lacey mumbled. And she did. Peri was a slender ninth grader with perfect teeth and hands the size of an Egg McMuffin. She didn’t appear to be much of a threat. But Peri was the eighth child in a family of nine. Ten, if you count Peri’s twin sister who died years before Lacey came to Conoyerville. Peri had four older brothers and Lacey had once witnessed some sibling teasing get out-of-hand until Peri traded punches with the cruel efficiency of a turbine piston. Peri knew more about fighting than any girl Lacey had ever met.

In fact, Peri knew enough about fighting that she had spent almost two days trying to talk Lacey out of answering Wrench Rollie’s relentless challenge. Lacey did not want to fight Wrench Rollie. Lacey didn’t want to fight anyone. But Wrench Rollie wouldn’t leave Lacey alone, and avoiding The Wrench in a fishbowl as small as Conoyerville was about as likely as peanut butter avoiding jelly.

Peri had slumped into the beanbag chair in Lacey’s basement after Lacey finally convinced her that – lose or lose – she had to show up and face the wrath of The Wrench and get it over with. “Alright. If you are dead set on going through with this, then I’m backing you up,” Peri had said. “The least I can do is make sure it stays one-on-one.”

Those words left Lacey Faruzzi in awe of Peri. Lacey had never been at one school long enough to have a real BFF before, and now she had found one in this messed up Central Texas burg. Peri was the perfect friend, or at least she would be if she walked a little slower.

“Can you slow down?” Lacey pleaded.

“Remember,” Peri ignored her. “You’re hippy so use your center of gravity. Squat. Keep your shoulders forward and your big boobs protected. Try to go as long as you can before she gets you on the ground. Once she does, don’t wait to start crying. She’s going to punch your face until you cry, so don’t hold back.”

“Hippy?” Lacey’s eyes rolled. “You wait until right before I’m getting pummeled to tell me I have a big ass? Really? Nice pep talk dere, coach.”

“I didn’t say you have a big ass. I said you had hips. I’d kill for those hips, Red. And just one of your boobs.”

“You’d look damn silly with only one big boob,” Lacey mumbled.

The girls walked for another twenty seconds before something like a suppressed hitch slipped out between Peri’s teeth. Peri giggled, followed by a full-fledged series of pig-snorts. Peri stopped walking and bent over her knees.

“Whah?” Lacey raised her palms.

Peri clutched at a huge imaginary mammary with her right hand and began to spin around it while making the facial expressions of a mental patient. “Guuhnnn! I got one big boooob!

Somehow, Lacey could not keep the corners of her own mouth from thinning. “You dinglebert.” She struggled to maintain her scowl.

Peri flipped the imaginary giant boob over her shoulder and began to topple backward in a spiral.

“Stop it,” Lacey scolded. But then she laughed too.

Peri stopped clowning and put both of her hands on Lacey’s cheeks. “Hey,” Peri said, “have I told you that I’m proud of you?”

“I should have just signed that stupid petition,” Lacey hissed a ragged stop-and-start sigh. “I’m not a homophobe, I’m just new.”

“I know,” Peri nodded.

“It could have been a petition to start a model airplane club and I wouldn’t have signed it.” The corners of Lacey’s eyes began to moisten. “I’m just…”

“I know,” Peri nodded.

“I’m just new and I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t know how stuff works here and they didn’t have GBL clubs at my last school in Indy and I didn’t…”

“I know.” Peri leaned her forehead against Lacey’s and looked her directly in the eyes. “Lace, really. Bullies are despicable, right? I mean, they are way down there at the bottom of the list of the Worst People in the World, sandwiched between ‘Pedophiles’ and ‘Pedophile clowns.’ But yaknow, the most despicable bully is the one who pretends to be a victim.”

“Is that from one of your songs?” Lacey sniffed. “Did you write that?”

“Yeah. It’s from a little ditty I’m working on called ‘Sonata for a Redhead Getting an Ass-kicking.’ ” Peri was back to her normal deadpan expression. “I’m hearing kind of a klezmer rhythm. Folksy. Whadya think?”

“I think you don’t want to try and work out the accordion part for a song like that.”

“Good point. Maybe a samba?”

“Samba is good,” Lacey nodded, the edges of her voice beginning to tremble. “Latin music is trendy.”

Peri looked over her shoulder at the rusting fence surrounding the old foundry.

Lacey followed her eyeline. “Might as well get this behind me.” Lacey smeared her wet cheeks with the back of her hand.

“Lace,” Peri whispered. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for two days. As long as YouTube is in operation, this will never be behind you. Your freakin’ kids will watch this fight one day. That’s why you can’t just turtle onto your back and let her pound you. You need to tag her at least once or twice. Make her work for it. Then we’ll make our own video with all the parts of you bleeding cut out. But you have to give me something to work with, okay?”

Lacey sniffed and nodded.

“Let’s go,” Peri said.

* * *

Neal Bartholomew leaned back against the foundry wall and measured the madness of it all. He checked his watch. Ten minutes until fight time and there were at least forty kids taking positions around the gladiator pit that had been some kind of courtyard in the seventies. Now it was just a square scar depression between the remnants of two dilapidated shipping warehouses.

Neal shook his head. All the giddiness and all the smiles and all of the anticipation in the chattering voices around him made him want to vomit.

“Fight!” somebody squealed.

“Aaaaaw yeah,” said a tenth grader. “Guuuurlfight, muthahfuckahs! Imma see me some tit-tay tooo-day!”

Neal sighed. The most revolting part of the whole circus was watching Doug Dobbs from the Frosh Journalism Club instructing two of his flunkies where to stand with their mobile phones so they could get unobstructed video of the entire fight.

Marcus, you work the tight shots, but keep it waist up. Troy, you are the Master shot. Just keep all the action in the frame and be careful not to swish. Is your autofocus off? Good. I don’t want your shot to blur out on the action. Ever.”

“Back to the scene of the crime, huh?” The voice took Neal by surprise.

“What? Oh hey, Kerblonk.”

“Dude,” Kirby Blanche gave Neal his trademark, squinty-eyed stoner nod. “You’re like the last person I expected to find back here at Thunderdome. How long ago was that shit with you and Trace Bellows, anyway?”

Two months, fourteen days, twenty-three hours and forty-two minutes, Neal thought. “Dunno,” he said.

“That shit was epic.” Kerblonk shook a pop-up into the opening of the Marlboro Light pack in his hand and pulled it free with his lips. “You’re looking better, Dude. Like it never happened.”

Neal’s tongue instinctively poked at the ragged fringe of tissue on the inside of his left cheek; the spot where Trace’s solid punch sawed off a chunk against his teeth. Neal’s tongue continued on to take a quick inventory of all the acidity ulcers in the creases of his gums.

Neal shrugged.

He knew Kerblonk wasn’t actively trying to be a dick. Kerblonk was a straightforward guy who spoke his mind. Neal rather admired Kerblonk for his honesty, even if Neal was a touch envious that Kerblonk dressed like a movie star. Kerblonk’s mom was an anesthesiologist at Conoyerville General. As a grade school kid, Kerblonk had always had the best toys, the latest video games, and impeccable clothes. Not much had changed if you replaced the word “toys” with “weed.”

Neal’s mom didn’t work, unless you counted nagging his seasonally-employed roofer father as a vocation.

Neal was too skinny for the rugby shirt he wore over dissolving Levis. It wasn’t surprising that Neal had been in a fight. It was surprising that it didn’t happen more often, given his shabby clothes, his mom-quality haircuts, and the curse of his smartass wit.

“Not exactly your speed either, Kerblonk.” Neal raised an eyebrow.

Kerblonk sucked hard on his cigarette and shook his head. “Nah. ‘Snot. But that new girl is kinda hot, right?” He pulled the cigarette away from his mouth and exhaled through a gap in his thin smile. “So not Texas, yaknow?”

Neal nodded. He knew. He had seen the redhead on the first day back from Christmas break. It had been fourth period, gym with the last lunch break. She sat on the floor with the rest of the girls, but her legs were the blotchy pink of a sausage casing, not tanning bed orange. Her hair: a cascading brush fire, not yet colored blonde and highlighted like the others. And, of course, she was the only one wearing the yellow gym shorts and shirt with the red piping and school branding; the gym outfit the school insisted you had to buy and wear, but nobody actually did. The redhead looked like she wanted to crawl into that yellow shirt and disappear.

Neal’s heart had stopped for a moment. He went dizzy with the endorphin rush of his first hopeless crush.

Neal’s head remained on a swivel, trying to catch a glimpse of the redhead in the hall between classes. Waiting to see where she would be sorted in the social order. Waiting to find out if he was allowed to talk to her. Then he found out she was a band kid and… that was that. Band geeks dated band geeks. They were an incestuous clique.

But still, Neal couldn’t stop looking for her. His gut did the same lurch every time he saw her rushing past him in the hallway, leaning in to bend Peri Jamesey’s ear. He saw her face in his dreams, but he still didn’t know her voice. Lacey Faruzzi was a quiet girl.

And oh, that hair.

It had been Lacey’s flowing red hair that pulled Neal’s focus and nearly allowed Trace Bellows to break his nose. There she was, up on the concrete slab with the rest of the cheering monkeys. Lacey looked down at him and… smiled. Not smiling at him, per se. Rather, smiling with the same dopey “Fight fight fight!” grin as the rest of the Philistines from freshman class.

First Neal’s heart broke. Then his molar cracked in half behind the animal ferocity of Trace Bellows’s knuckles.

After that, nobody remembered how he had peppered Trace with solid jabs early in the fight. They just remembered the blood that gushed from his nose and the freeze-frame question mark of red spit arcing out of his mouth in the digital picture Trace’s twin brother Tommy tweeted to the ninth and tenth grade distribution list. Neal’s head was spinning away from Trace’s right hook. Neal’s pupils were pointing in two different directions. Trace’s face was frozen in the expressive intensity of Wolverine on the cover of a comic book. An impressive picture of an impressive punch.

Neal used the photo of his humiliation as his computer wallpaper, forcing himself to look at and keep it loaded into his consciousness every moment that he spent at the keyboard. He added a yellow arrow in the upper right of the screen. It pointed at a blurry girl in the crowd; Red hair and her mouth open in a toothy chimpanzee cheer.

Neal added a caption at the bottom: “Love hurts.”

Neal shuffled his feet and took another step to his right to stay within the cool tilting shadow of the corrugated metal wall, the last vertical remnant of the old foundry besides an office shack rusting away in the back corner.

Lacey Faruzzi, by all accounts, did not know Neal Bartholomew. But Neal Bartholomew decided to be present for Lacey Faruzzi’s moment of humiliation. She wouldn’t know it was payback, but he would. She wouldn’t recognize the tasty irony, but he did.

“Here comes the newgirl!” someone shouted. Heads turned to see Peri Jamesey snake herself through the break in the chain-link fence and then pull it back, like a trainer stepping through boxing ring ropes and peeling it for her fighter.

The redhead stepped through the fence. From seventy yards away, Neal could see the girl’s knees shaking. Her eyes flitted left and right in nervous terror.

He instantly loathed himself for being there and left.