It was the best of spacetimes, it was the worst of spacetimes, it was the age of youth, it was the age of tomfoolery. My youth, my tomfoolery. I had everything before me, I had nothing before me. In my mind, I was going direct to heaven. In Turnbull’s mind, I was going direct the other way.
I was young—Taylor Young, that is—and I was in trouble. In trouble, should anyone be lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the concept, was a metaphorical location that in this case found its physical, real-life manifestation in the office of Mr. Turnbull, official head honcho and big kahuna of Winfield Northrop, my beloved, behated high school.
“So what am I looking at?” my dad asked, holding a piece of paper Turnbull had pompously presented to him as Exhibit A. What he was looking at was a page Mrs. Cunningham had ripped out of my notebook during her calculus class because she had been having a really bad day. Of course I couldn’t point out that she’d been having a really bad day, because that kind of snark wasn’t appreciated at Winfield Northrop.
“This piece of paper,” Turnbull said in his signature sonorous, deep, spine-tingling voice, “is a token of your son’s lack of commitment to the high standards we strive to adhere to here at Winfield Northrop. Taylor produced these scribblings during—”
“They’re not scribblings,” I said. Yeah, you guessed it, interrupting adults wasn’t appreciated at Winfield Northrop either, but I was never one willing to betray the truth in the name of misguided courtesy—or to succumb to the presumptuous entitlement of authority. “They’re equations describing quantum entanglement Bell states.”
“Oh, I thought that’s what they were,” Dad said, smiling proudly. For an evolutionary anthropologist to recognize quantum entanglement Bell states was no mean feat.
Turnbull theatrically cleared his throat. “I’d rather you not interrupt me, Taylor, although I do appreciate your effort to put your lack of discipline and your rude behavior on the record right here in front of your parents.” He turned to my mom and dad. “Because this certainly is an important part of the problem we’re dealing with here. I don’t really care if they’re Bell states or swing states or states of matter.”
“That’s clever,” I said, but Turnbull ignored me.
“Fact of the matter is, your son penned them during Mrs. Cunningham’s calculus class. Calculus is not physics, and whatever Taylor was doing, it had nothing to do with calculus. Mrs. Cunningham, rightfully, did not approve. Here at Winfield Northrop, we’re committed to provide our students with the best education their not inconsiderable school fees can buy. However, this requires not only an extraordinarily dedicated teaching staff but also students who are ready and willing to focus their attention on whatever is put before them at any given time. Mrs. Cunningham has been teaching for over forty years, twenty-eight of them at this school. While her teaching methods may be described as ‘old-school’, they are proven to be extraordinarily effective. When she asked your son to stop doodling—”
“Not doodling,” I reminded him, shaking my head.
“—his response was rude and disrespectful beyond anything we deem acceptable here at Winfield Northrop.”
“So what exactly did he say?” Mom said glancing at an incoming message on her phone.
“He …” Turnbull cleared his throat, waiting for Mom to look at him. When she didn’t, he continued. “Without looking up from his notebook, and I can see where he got that from, he told Mrs. Cunningham to leave him alone and do her effing job.”
Mom turned to me, an eyebrow raised in reproach. “Really? You said ‘effing’?”
“I did definitely not say ‘effing,’” I said, shaking my head. “I’m pretty sure I said ‘fucking.’”
Turnbull slammed his hand on his desk, making us all jump. “Taylor, I will not have you use that kind of filthy language in my office!”
“I’m sorry, sir. I was merely trying to give my parents an accurate picture of what actually happened. In the spirit of transparency and full disclosure.”
Turnbull pinched the bridge of his nose. “Anyway, Mrs. Cunningham was actually trying to do her job when she told you to pay attention to her class, and your rude and insolent response was simply unacceptable.”
“Excuse me, sir, if I may,” I said, raising my finger, “I would argue that Mrs. Cunningham’s job is to teach the twenty-something other students in that class something they do not yet know rather than wasting everyone’s time by chastising me for trying to advance my knowledge because I want to and not because someone tells me to. I’m sorry if an independent, inquisitive mind is something Mrs. Cunningham takes offense at, but it shouldn’t be about her.”
“It shouldn’t be about you, either.”
“I didn’t make it about me, she did. I appreciate the focus on me, but with all due respect to Mrs. Cunningham, she has nothing left to teach me. I understand how that must feel frustrating, but by scolding me for my academic fervor she has done a tremendous disservice to everyone else in that classroom who would actually benefit from a bit more attention.”
Turnbull looked at my parents. “Is he like that at home?”
“Oh, no,” my dad said, shaking his head emphatically. “At home, he’s much, much worse.”
Nodding in agreement, my mom added, “We’ve stopped arguing with him when he was fourteen because he would always win anyway. He’s simply too smart for us. Or anyone, really.” She squeezed my hand and smiled at me like the proud mother that she was.
Turnbull sighed. “If he is so smart, there would have been ways to get him through high school much quicker by letting him skip a year or two. Actually, it’s not too late for that. Taylor has already completed his core requirements. He doesn’t have to be here any longer. In fact, I’d be happy to sign his graduation papers right away.”
“And deprive me of my inalienable right to a proper graduation ceremony?” I said. “And my prom? Sorry, but that’s not gonna fly. I’ve already bought a tux. I wanted to get one made out of genuine Chinese silk, but apparently my high school graduation isn’t worth it, so I had to settle for Topman, which is really quite embarrassing.” I sighed, casting a side glance at Mom.
“We’ve been through this, honey,” she said without looking at me. “I’m not going to fork out five grand for a tuxedo. Go play the lottery, and with a little luck you can buy all the silk in China for all I care.”
Turnbull looked at me. He tapped his finger on his desk a couple of times, then he said, “Would you excuse us for a minute?”
“Sure,” I said and waited.
After a few moments of awkward silence, Turnbull said, “That was my way of asking you to step outside so we can talk about you behind your back.”
“Oh!” I said, feigning surprise. “You see, Mr. Turnbull, sir, this is why I desperately need my senior year. I still have to work on my social perceptiveness.” I got up and left the room, breathing a silent sigh of relief. As much fun as it was to play the slick, cocky smart-aleck to a small but dedicated audience, as an act it was difficult and exhausting to maintain over an extended period of time. The spine-tingling thrill that came with speaking truth to power was in no small part owed to the looming danger of crossing the very fine line between the top of the world and the gaping abyss below.
When I closed the door to Turnbull’s office behind me and turned toward the waiting area outside, still high on adrenalin, my heart skipped a beat and I inaudibly gasped when my glance fell upon the adorably miserable-looking figure sitting in one of the chairs next to the water cooler. Bent forward, his elbows resting on his knees, his eyes were fixed on the floor until I caught his attention. He raised his head, and the moment he met my glance, his sad blue eyes lit up, suddenly all alert. Putting his hands on his thighs, he sat up straight and stared at me with his mouth half open. I wasn’t sure if it was my cerulean blue fingernails that made him stare at me as if I were an animal at the zoo, my baseball-style raglan T-shirt with the huge number 69 printed on the front, or simply my stunningly good looks.
I’m kidding. The set of genes mother nature had passed on to me through my parents had produced a phenotype that was, although endowed with a superior intellect, sporting distinctly average looks. In my weaker moments I sometimes secretly wished I could go to the Ministry of Beauty and exchange some of my IQ points for nicer physical features, but I was always quick to remind myself that I was too smart to be so shallow. Nevertheless, I was never not shallow enough to be easily stunned by spectacular displays of beauty, the kind that would send the butterflies in my stomach into a frenzy and make my adrenalin ask my testosterone to get married and make babies; the kind that was awaiting me outside of principal Turnbull’s office that day and staring at me like a blue-eyed red deer in the headlights of the car I was steering down the long and winding road of my life.
The boy was tall and skinny. His pale skin stood in stark contrast with his steel-blue eyes and even more so with his shaggy mop of wiry red hair. Dressed in a plain black T-shirt, black skinny jeans and black Chucks, he looked like a human Duracell copper top battery, and all of a sudden I wondered if my Chinese zodiac sign might by any chance be the rabbit.
“Hi,” I said with a nod as I sat down in a chair opposite Copper Top, and only now did I take notice of the woman sitting next to him. She was probably just a couple of years older than my mom, but she looked as if she came from a different generation altogether. With her flowery dress, the voluminous 1980s hairdo, and the way she clutched the handbag on her lap, she struck me like the kind of person who had struggled with the transition from rotary dial to push-button phones and simply hadn’t bothered to keep up with modernity after that. But at least she had the good manners to say, “Hello,” back to me, unlike Copper Top who only cast me a brief, bashful look as he nervously rubbed his hands on his thighs.
Needless to say, I found his demeanor unspeakably adorable. Looks aside, I’ve always found the coy, timid kind decidedly more attractive than outgoing personalities such as my own. Opposites attract, and I’d hate to be in a relationship with a person like myself. As someone who tended to live with his head in the clouds, I could always use someone who had the ability to ground me. At the same time, I never shied away from the challenge of luring shy people out of their shell so they, too, could enjoy the thrill of being young and alive.
Reclining in my chair, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and pretended to check my social media feeds—a decoy to distract from the surreptitious glances I cast across the room. I turned off the shutter sound of the camera. I had never seen Copper Top before—I was pretty sure I’d remembered if I had—and for all I knew I might never see him again, so I covertly pointed the phone at him and took a souvenir photo just in case. You could never have enough pictures of cute boys on your phone anyways. Once I had taken the photo, I pinch-zoomed into his face to take a closer look, and I had to smile when I found my first impression confirmed.
He was gorgeous with his bright-colored hair, his almost anemic-looking skin, his chapped red lips and a few dozen light brown freckles that added an intriguingly boyish touch. Since I was twelve, I’d secretly been rating every single boy I ever met on a scale from one to ten, and this beautiful specimen was easily a nine, possibly even a ten. I would have had to see him naked to be sure, but, though tempting, it was probably the right decision not to ask him to take his clothes off outside the principal’s office and with his mother present.
I closed the photo and tapped on the Wikipedia app to look up the Chinese zodiac article. My heart skipped yet another beat when I saw that in the year I was born, the Chinese year of the rabbit ended on February 4th.
So I was officially a Chinese rabbit, and I silently chuckled as I spontaneously decided I was in dire need of a fresh Duracell battery.
Meanwhile, Copper Top had assumed the same position I had initially found him in, and he was trying his best to look anywhere but at me. He looked at his hands, at his feet, at the floor, at the walls, but he was fighting a losing battle, and the next time I looked up from my phone, I caught him staring at my chest. He kept staring at it for a long time, at the huge number 69 printed on my T-shirt, and there was something strange in his gaze. I’d always loved wearing that T-shirt because it usually provoked a reaction. Most people would grin or smirk when they saw it, because they all knew what it meant. Some would even blush. But when Copper Top was staring at it, it was almost as if he was looking at something that he seemed to find unsettling or disturbing for some reason. It didn’t make any sense to me, and I wondered how he would react if he saw the back of the T-shirt where I had the fictitious player name Cox custom-printed above the 69.
Cox, get it? As in cocks? Come on, it’s hilarious.
I got up from my chair, and Copper Top immediately tensed up. He straightened his back, rubbed his hands, and eyed me nervously as I casually strolled across the room. He relaxed a little—only a little—when he realized I wasn’t coming for him but made my way to the water cooler. I put myself at an angle to it, and as I bent forward to pull a paper cup from the dispenser and fill it up, I basically put my rear end right in Copper Top’s face. From the corner of my eye, I could see his desperate yet futile attempt to ignore my butt in front of his nose. He was clearly not comfortable with this degree of in-his-face closeness. I had a few swigs of water, then I turned to him and said, “Want some?”
He looked at me, his eyes wide open in shock, and said, “What?”
I pointed at the water cooler. “Would you like some water?”
His eyes torn back and forth between my face and my crotch, he said, “Uh, sure.”
I emptied my cup and threw it in the waste bin. Then I picked a fresh cup, filled it up and handed it to him.
“Any time,” I said and turned around. I was halfway back to my chair when I heard him spurt water through his nose, followed by a medium-sized coughing fit. By the time I sat back down, his mother was leaning in to him, patting his back with one hand and handing him a handkerchief with the other.
“Oh dear,” I said sympathetically.
He returned a nervous smile. Meanwhile, his face was glowing bright red like a fire hydrant, but I wasn’t sure if that was because of his coughing fit or the Cox print on my T-shirt that had prompted it. I watched him as he finished cleaning himself up, and then, finally, he cast me a brief glance and I could swear I saw the faintest shadow of a smile flicker across his face before he remembered how shy he was and averted his gaze again like an intimidated little puppy.
I gave him a few seconds to collect himself, then I said, “New kid?”
Startled, his fight or flight instinct on high alert once more, he looked at me nervously and said, “What?”
“I’ve never seen you around here,” I said. “First day?”
He opened his mouth, but his mother beat him to it. “Brad has been ill,” she said, leaning forward and nodding, “so he has been home schooled for a while.”
“Karen!” Brad whispered, clearly not appreciating having his personal issues discussed with random strangers, yet at the same time inadvertently revealing a curious detail about their relationship. I’d only ever once known someone who addressed their parents by their first names. They were old-school hippie parents where the mother had short and the dad long hair and both were stoners. Karen had long hair and didn’t look like a stoner, so I wondered what was going on here.
“But he’s doing much better now,” she added. “He’s excited to be back in school.”
“I can see that,” I said, glancing at Brad who looked as if he wanted to crawl into a hole. “I’m Taylor, by the way. Taylor Young.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Taylor,” Karen said with a polite nod. Meanwhile, Brad kept staring at the floor, looking for that hole.
“So, are you a senior?”
Scratching his elbow and trying hard not to look at me, he nodded.
“Good,” I said. “Maybe one year won’t be enough for them to break your spirit.”
As Brad looked even more miserable than before, his mother laughed nervously, putting one hand on Brad’s arm while dismissively waving the other at me. “Don’t worry, darling. He’s only joking.” She cast a begging glance at me, clearly hoping I would laugh along and confirm that yes, indeed, I was only joking.
“I’m sure you’re gonna be doing great,” I said in Brad’s direction.
Donning a half-hearted smile, Brad nodded. His second smile within a few moments. I was on a roll here.
“See?” Karen said. “I told you.”
“So where do you live?”
The question was directed at Brad, but it was once again his mother who replied on his behalf. “We live uptown, on Elkwood.”
“Hey,” I said, still looking at Brad, “that’s just a few blocks from where I live. Perhaps we can hang out some time, if you like.”
Karen nodded at me gratefully, her face brightening up. “Oh, that would be nice, wouldn’t it?” She put her hand on Brad’s arm again and leaned in to him. “See, you’ve already made a friend.”
Brad’s head was glowing. He nodded with little enthusiasm and avoided my gaze. As for me, I’m not gonna deny it, I was intrigued. Silent waters run deep, as they say, and I was convinced that under the right set of circumstances, I could awaken Brad’s slumbering passions and unleash them from their awkward but pretty shell.
The noise of Turnbull’s door opening tore me out of my dreamy thoughts before they had a chance to turn naughty. I got up from my chair. As my parents stepped out of the office, my mom, knowing Turnbull behind her, rolled her eyes at me and smirked.
“Well,” Turnbull said, “thanks for coming by anyway. Let’s see how it’ll go from here on out.”
“Good bye,” Dad said, shaking Turnbull’s hand.
Turnbull turned to Karen and Brad. “Mrs. Carson, Bradley, I’m so sorry to keep you waiting—” He cast a side glance at me. “—but I had some … urgent business to deal with. My apologies.”
“That’s all right,” Karen said, waving her hand. “We had a very nice conversation with Taylor here. I’m glad Brad already made a new friend.”
“Oh,” Turnbull said, casting me another glance as he shook Karen’s hand. He cleared his throat. “Well, all right. But please, let’s talk in my office.”
As he walked past me, I patted Brad’s shoulder and said, “Welcome to Winfield Northrop. I’ll see you around.” Brad’s shoulder felt bony, and he flinched ever so slightly when I touched it. Then he tensed up again, looked at the floor and nodded before he entered Turnbull’s office. Before Turnbull shut the door, glaring at me, Brad turned around and cast one last bashful glance at me, and I couldn’t help but return a broad, cocky grin to both of them, knowing for sure there was no way I was going to leave high school before my time was up.
* * *
Counterparts will be released on September 19, 2017. Click the button below to preorder your copy today.