The next Saturday Claire picked up Bender in her dad's beemer and drove him out to the old field near the Dairy Queen. No-one ever went there except to make out. Bender sat in that sweet car and kissed Claire's sweet mouth, and reminded himself not to get used to this - they were both mostly in it for the novelty.
For Claire, the novelty lasted until the Monday after detention six. "My friends-" she said. Her voice shook. "You don't make it easy for people to like you."
Bender shoved his hands into his pockets. He didn't say: Dump them, not me. He said: "Yeah, because that's what I've always fucking wanted. For your friends to like me."
She looked away, but not before Bender saw her face start to crumple. "You're an asshole," she said. And wasn't that a fact.
Detention seven - the second-last detention - was just him and Dick. Bender hawked spitballs up at the ceiling. He wondered what Claire was doing - if she was giving it up to some rich guy in a Porsche, if she was wearing the pink panties from two Saturdays ago. They'd had lace around the edges, and when Bender had run his fingers over the lace, Claire had pushed up and tilted until his fingers had slid up the damp centre seam. She'd let him stroke up and down a couple of times, and then she'd pulled away, cheeks flushed. "Maybe we-" She'd licked her lips. Her lipstick had been smudged from Bender's mouth. "Maybe we should go home," she'd said.
Now, in detention, Vernon came back into the library. As he opened the door one of the spitballs dropped down onto his head. It was a moment so beautiful it made Bender's heart ache. He widened his eyes. "Could the plaster be falling, sir? I've heard that water damage can affect the structural integrity of buildings. You might want to look into that."
Vernon stared at him for a long moment. He turned his face up to the ceiling. "I count one- two- three-" His mouth moved silently. "Fifteen more Saturdays. Plus the one you still owe me."
Bender made a noise that maybe sounded like a laugh, and felt like rage. "Whatever," he tried to say, except that what came out was: "So you must have a real fucked up home life. Am I right?"
Vernon took a step closer. "What did you say to me?" He voice had gone quiet. There was an undertone in it like the thrum of a train approaching.
Bender clenched his teeth together. Just shut up, just shut the fuck up, he told himself. But sometimes it was like he couldn't stop his mouth from moving. "I said you must have some kind of a fucked up life."
Vernon took another step closer, and Bender's heart started beating so loud he almost couldn't hear his own stupid mouth running. "I figure," he continued, "if you've got nothing better to do than spend your weekends with me, then either you got no-one to go home to, or you hate the people at home so much you'd rather be with me than them."
Vernon blinked hard a couple of times. He had a look on his face like maybe he'd be happy to fuck up his career if he just got to fuck up Bender first. Bender swallowed. There were two fire exits to the sides, two more behind him. He wondered how fast he could get out of his chair.
"I'm ready," someone said suddenly, and Bender jumped. His knee knocked loudly against the underside of the desk. Carl was standing in the doorway.
Carl looked from Vernon to Bender and back to Vernon again. "I'm ready to clean up in here now," he said.
No Claire in the parking lot, of course. Bender walked home the long way. He shoved his hands in his pockets and followed the cycling track all the way to the Angelo property. Fifteen more Saturdays. Plus the one he still owed.
Only, there weren't that many Saturdays left to graduation. So, eight Saturdays. And he could drop out any time he wanted. He could leave Shermer now if he wanted. His chest loosened a bit.
At home, the old man's car was in the driveway. Bender stood on the sidewalk shivering. He could do it right now, he told himself. He could hitch a ride right now and go someplace where no-one had ever heard of Shermer. He'd never have to see anyone he knew again. He felt around in his pocket. He had twenty bucks.
He thought about it. It was fucking cold. His feet began to hurt. His ears hurt. Even his teeth ached. He had nowhere to go. He had some weed in his room.
He stepped off the sidewalk. After nine hours of Vernon he really, really needed to get stoned.
Inside, the old man was on the sofa watching the game. He didn't look around when Bender came in, but his head came up. "Fuck you been?"
"Gee." Bender stopped and pretended to think about it. "Hope I was being properly supervised. I could have been out there causing anarchy."
The old man turned slowly to look at him, and there was a long sickening beat where they were just staring at each other. Bender's stomach rolled.
And then Leon Wood scored. The old man turned back to the TV. Bender folded his arms and walked out of the room fast.
Saturday morning, Bender woke up a half hour into the alarm buzzing. Another nine hours with Vernon. Another two months with Vernon. He squeezed his eyes shut. He got up.
He went the short way this time - down Main Street and over the football field. The ground was icy. The grass crunched as he walked. By the time he got to the library, his feet were half-frozen. He leaned against the doorway and wriggled his toes, trying to flex out the numbness.
Bender looked up. Brian was sitting by himself in the front row.
"What're you doing here?" Bender said. It came out gruff even though he was pretty fucking glad he wasn't going to be alone with Vernon again.
"Me?" Brian's hands started moving nervously - drumming a couple of pens against the desk. "Nothing. I mean- I mean- obviously I did something. But-" The pens stopped. "Nothing."
"Nothing," Bender said. He tried to say it mockingly, but it sounded pretty weak. He scrubbed a hand over his face. His toes were starting to hurt - better than numbness he guessed. He took the seat across the aisle from Brian. His cigarette pack tumbled out of his pocket. He jammed it back in.
Vernon arrived at seven on the dot because he was exactly that kind of anal. He looked sour when he saw Brian. "You will not speak," he told them. So he was diving right into his douche speech today. Bender lounged back sarcastically. "You will not move from these chairs. You will not cross me in any way. Is that understood?"
You fucking blowhard, Bender thought. And it must have been all over his face, because Vernon's mouth curled. Come on, do it. Do it. Do something to piss me off, his expression said.
Bender thought about seven more Saturdays of detentions. He opened his mouth anyway. There was a small movement in his peripheral vision. Brian had raised his hand.
Vernon looked irritated. "Yes?"
"Did-" Brian sounded hesitant, but there was another note tucked inside it. Bender closed his mouth. He knew that tone. He used that tone all the time. "I was wondering if you wanted a verbal answer." Brian continued. "Because you just said not to speak."
As smartassness went it was pretty lame, but Bender felt a small surge of pride. Brian Johnson. Welcome to detention.
Vernon looked down at Brian like he'd done an unexceptional party trick. "Nine hours," he said, as if Brian hadn't spoken. "You're in my kingdom for the next nine hours. Chew on that while you think up your next stupid question."
When he turned around to pace again, Brian flicked Bender a half grin that was gone as soon as Vernon turned back. Bender felt the corner of his mouth lift. He didn't bother to hide it.
After Vernon had gone, Brian picked up his pens and started drumming again. Bender leaned back in his seat and thought about nothing much. He maybe napped for a while. When he woke up, Brian was bent over a notebook. He had a fucking calculator on the table next to him.
Bender blinked. "Don't-" His voice sounded hoarse and sleepy. He cleared his throat. "Don't you get ever sick of being so fucking square?"
Brian snorted like Bender was kidding around with him. Bender felt a curl of irritation in the pit of his stomach. He sat up to say something harsher, but then Brian said: "How else am I getting out of here?" And Bender couldn't say anything to that.
An hour later, Brian was still doing math and Bender had exhausted his own patience for air guitar. "I'm fucking bored," he said.
"I have a-" Brian bent down and rooted around for something in his bag. "If you want, I have a chess set."
Bender looked at him. "You what?"
Brian pulled it out - a black-and-white box. "A magnetic set. Geoff Schultz and I play on the bus sometimes."
"Jesus." Bender shook his head. "I'm not that fucking bored."
Another hour later, though, he guessed he was that fucking bored. He folded his arms and watched sarcastically as Brian set up the pieces. Brian's face was all lit up like getting to play chess with Bender was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Bender kind of wanted to laugh and kind of wanted to punch his stupid mouth.
Brian explained the rules. There were a lot of them. "You can't do that," he said when Bender moved the first piece. "No, you can't do that either. Yeah, you can do that, but you shouldn't. This is Karpov's opening move against Kasperov at the World Championships. Except Kasperov didn't do what you just did. Wait-" He moved Bender's pawn back to its original spot. "That's just asking for trouble."
Bender guessed it should have pissed him off, but he kind of got a kick out of the whole thing, even when Brian beat him and then beat him again.
"I don't like Bobby Fischer," Brian said. "Even though he's an American." He set up the pieces for the next match. "My cousin Kendall thinks Kasperov is a spy, but I don't buy it. Kendall thinks the world's going to be destroyed by A-bombs, and we should all be stocking up on canned food. Do you like canned peaches? I like them better fresh."
Bender didn't like peaches at all. He lost again and decided he'd had enough. He looked at the clock. They'd killed two hours. Not bad.
He napped some more. He woke up with the hairs at the back of his neck prickling. After about a billion detentions he had a sixth sense.
He rubbed his eyes. "Put that shit away," he told Brian.
Brian's forehead creased. "What?"
Bender leaned over and swept the book and calculator onto Brian's lap. Brian grunted. The door opened.
Vernon. He looked at them. They looked back.
"Thanks," Brian said after Vernon had left.
Bender snorted. "Couldn't let you get caught doing math."
He napped some more. He woke up a few times to warn Brian to hide the calculator and notebook. And then it was suddenly four o'clock. All in all, not the worst detention he'd had ever sat through.
To be honest, Bender had never really noticed Brian in school. Turned out, though, they were in two classes together: English and Shop. In English, Brian sat at the front and had a lot to say about Herman Melville.
In Shop, he didn't say anything at all. He had a bench in the middle of the room. On Monday, and then again on Thursday, he came in with his head down and left with his head down.
After Thursday's class, Bender bumped his arm companionably as they walked through the door. Brian's shoulders came up almost defensively. When he saw Bender, he blinked a couple of times. He seemed startled.
"Bender," Minetti said behind them. "Gotta show you the new Hustler."
"Sure," Bender said. When he turned around again, Brian was gone.
Claire was in detention nine. She folded her arms and looked straight ahead when Bender asked how her friends were.
"Fuck you," she said.
Bender started to reply, and then remembered that he'd basically been a total asshole to her the whole time they'd been together.
"You should get out of here," he said. "We could fake a phonecall from your mom or something. I do a great rich lady voice."
Claire almost smiled at that. Then the door opened and Vernon came in.
"You just keep getting off that mat for another round with me, don't you," he said to Bender.
When he left, Claire's lips were tight. "I think I should stay," she said.
Monday, Bender got thrown out of his first class for cough-saying 'bullshit' every time Mrs Rayne said 'career'. She usually took his shit in her stride. Today, she looked really tired. She escorted him to the door. "Go suck up some fresh air," she said to him. "I mean, Jesus, John. You're on the home stretch now."
Bender wandered down to the parking lot, jumped up onto the hood of someone's car. Jack Elkov came by as he was making himself comfortable.
"Got anything?" Jack said.
Over the next hour, Bender made a bunch of sales. Missing class was good for business. Vernon appeared just after he'd sold his last eighth and was heading back for Shop. For extra credit, Mr Kwan was showing them how to build a motorcycle engine out of scrap parts. It was kind of cool.
"Bag," Vernon said.
"Please?" Bender prompted, mostly to buy some time. He did a quick assessment. There was no weed left. There was eighty bucks in the bag, but that was only mildly suspicious. And if Vernon had any real evidence, he wouldn't need to do a search.
"Give me the damn bag," Vernon snapped.
Bender raised his chin. He dropped the bag on the floor, just missing Vernon's toes. "Knock yourself out," he said with all the bravado he could manage.
Vernon found the cash. He counted it thoughtfully. "Lot of money for someone like you."
"I raise money for my church," Bender said with his straightest face. "Bake sales."
Vernon tossed the cash at Bender's chest. The notes fluttered to the ground. "One of these days, I'm going to catch you in the act," he said. He leaned closer, and Bender felt his whole body go cold. "I dream about that day."
Detention ten, Bender woke up and stared at the ceiling. He was chicken shit. If he had any balls at all, he'd get out of Shermer for good. He thought about Mrs Rayne saying 'home stretch now'. He ground his teeth. What the fuck did she know?
He turned his head to watch the numbers on the alarm flip over: 6:39, 6:40, 6:41. This was the morning he stayed in bed, he decided. He wrapped his fist around his cock. At 6:47 he was panting. He was going to be so fucking late. The clock flipped over to 6:48. He came all over his stomach, gasping. He scrambled out of bed, reaching for his jeans with one hand, tissues with the other.
He made it to the library at 6:59. Brian was already there. Bender flushed when he saw him, and that was weird.
"You okay?" Brian asked.
Bender glared. What kind of a question was that? "I'm fucking golden."
Vernon arrived. They suffered through his speech in silence. Bender lounged back in his seat and tuned out. The night before, his dad had explained why people like him were born losers and would die losers. "You think a diploma will make a difference?" he'd said. "People'll take one look at you and know what you are. Fucking lazy. Fucking useless."
After Vernon left, Bender kicked the side of Brian's chair. "So how's your hard life in the land of high parental expectations?" he asked.
Brian got a hollow look on his face that made Bender wish he hadn't asked, or at least that he'd asked nicer. He kicked the chair a little softer. "You gonna do some math?"
Brian shrugged. "I think I'll sleep a while."
Bender napped as well. When he opened his eyes, the sun had moved across the windows. Brian was awake.
Brian glanced over at him. "I wanted to say before," he said. "I heard- I'm sorry about you and Claire."
Bender swallowed. He started to shrug, but then found himself kicking the table leg hard instead. It fucking hurt.
And then he was suddenly so sick of being in this same room again (again again again) that he couldn't bear it. He kicked over his chair.
The fire exits were right there. He grabbed a book from the nearest shelf, and hurled it at a second-storey window. It crashed into a table. It wasn't as satisfying as walking out, but it was an okay substitute. The next book hit a file cabinet, making it rock back and forth. The next one hit the ceiling. Man, he had shitty aim.
He opened the next book. ... to count amoeba in stained soil samples ... it said. There was a diagram of a wobbly shape. Bender drew a face inside the wobble and legs underneath. He gave it a giant cock. He could feel himself calming down. He wandered over to the weird statue in the middle of the room and gave that a dick as well - a small one at first, and then a bigger one because he felt sorry for it.
He flipped through the amoeba book: ... more applicable to agricultural than forest soils, ... many different kinds of nematodes... , ... paths to coexistence. Who read this bullshit? ... mobilization of nutrients. He threw it at the wall. It landed, pages butterflied, on the stairs. His neck prickled. He went back to his seat.
The door burst open. "What's going on in here?" Vernon demanded.
"On?" Bender raised his eyebrows.
"Don't you feign ignorance with me, you little jerk."
"I'm sorry, sir. I'm not feigning. As you've said numerous times, I am just dumb-fucking ignorant."
Vernon took the couple of steps he needed to get his face right up to Bender's. "You think this is funny? You think damaging school property is funny?"
"I'm not- we're not laughing," Brian mumbled.
"Not really, sir," Bender said. "But I have pretty discriminating taste when it comes to humour. Your jacket, for example-"
"The jacket isn't funny," Brian said.
"You. Shut up," Vernon said to Brian. He looked at Bender. "You-" He crooked his finger. "Come with me."
"Fine," Bender ground out. He'd pretty much asked for it, hadn't he. He always fucking asked for it. He had a sudden vivid memory of being in that storage room with Vernon, of Vernon with his fist raised. He swallowed bile. Don't be a pussy, he told himself. Why are you always such a fucking pussy?
"I don't think he should go."
It took Bender a second to realise he hadn't spoken himself. He watched Vernon jerk his head around to stare at Brian. "What?" Vernon said.
Brian wasn't quite meeting Vernon's eyes. "He should stay here."
Vernon stepped over to Brian's desk. "He should what?" he asked. He sounded almost curious.
Bender could see that Brian's hands were shaking in his lap. "Stay here," Brian said. His voice failed on the last word. He just kind of mouthed it.
Vernon stared at him. The library was totally quiet. Two exits there and two exits there, Bender reminded himself. Vernon's expression flickered - rage then blank. Bender's leg muscles started to ache. His body wanted to run.
Vernon took a step back. "If I find any damaged property - caused by you or others - you'll both regret it," he said. And then, unbelievably, he turned on his heels and walked out the door.
Bender stared at the space where Vernon had been. He could still smell the dust in the storage room. He looked sideways at Brian, and Brian smiled at him wryly.
Bender's heart constricted - just like it had the first time Claire had smiled at him. His body was all worked up, he realised. He didn't know what the fuck he was feeling.
"Why did-" he stopped. He thought about the last few Saturdays. It took him a second to get it, and then he got it. "So- so what?" he said. He could hear the unevenness in his voice - from humiliation or gratitude, he wasn't even sure. "So this is- what? You guys got together and decided I needed a babysitter?"
"No." Brian seemed embarrassed. "A witness maybe."
Brian's Saturdays and Carl's and - geez - Claire's Saturday last week. Bender couldn't make sense of it. Why would they give their weekends like that? He searched for something to say. His mind stayed stubbornly blank. "I- thanks," he said lamely.
"It's okay." Brian still looked embarrassed. He put the calculator and notebook back on the desk. His t-shirt was damp under his arms and across his back. He tapped some numbers into the calculator. It looked kind of random. He didn't open the notebook.
Bender watched the door for nearly an hour. Vernon didn't come back. Eventually, the adrenaline petered into tedium. Bender got out of his seat. He wondered if he could climb the statue. There were no real footholds. He sat down again.
"We could-" Brian turned. "You want to play chess or something?"
Bender closed his eyes. "Nope."
Except, there wasn't anything else to do. They played. Bender lost. No surprises there. When he'd had enough, he took a long nap. He hoped he'd wake up in a whole other town.
He woke to Brian shaking his shoulder. The door was opening. Vernon.
"Lunch," Vernon said curtly.
They ate their sandwiches. Afterwards, Brian held up the chess set questioningly.
"Hmm," Bender said. He opened his Coke and took a long thoughtful swallow. He put the can down. "You know how to play poker?"
Bender smiled. "Okay then," he said.
Two hours later he was in possession of three of Brian's pens and one of his shoelaces. He dealt out another hand. "I think I know why the motorcycle engine in Shop isn't running," he said idly. He was surprised when Brian looked interested.
He was pretty sure there was a compression leak. On Thursday, he'd put his thumb against the spark plug hole and got Ryman to kick the engine over. There'd been some pressure, but not as much as there should have been.
"How did you work that out?" Brian said. He sounded wondering.
Bender shrugged self-consciously. "It's just a theory," he said.
Mr Kwan's method of teaching was to sip coffee and do the crossword while people figured out stuff for themselves. He only intervened to stop them damaging expensive parts, and even then only when he was frustrated with number ten down or whatever.
On Monday Bender took charge of the room. He grabbed Brian's shoulder and pulled him over to the engine.
"What?" Brian said. He blinked as if Bender had woken him from a deep sleep. He was always kind of a zombie in Shop. "What are you doing?" he muttered. He glanced meaningfully around the room, as though reminding Bender that the other guys would see him consorting with a dweeb.
Bender rolled his eyes. "Just-" He pointed. "Just listen."
Brian knelt down slowly. Bender pointed at the spark plug, and Brian put his ear to it. Then Bender kicked the engine over. "You hear anything?"
Brian's expression went thoughtful. "Do it again," he said. He leaned closer. "Yeah, I can hear-" He tilted his head. "Hissing?" He smiled up at Bender suddenly. "You were right. There's a leak."
Bender looked at Brian's smile and swallowed. He'd messed around with Dean Minetti one time. They'd been in Minetti's basement getting stoned, and Minetti had said something stupid about the Ramones.
"Blow me," Bender had said, and Minetti had. He'd laughed, and then just leaned over on the sofa and done it.
They hadn't talked about it afterwards. Bender had finished the joint and gone home. The next day, Minetti had said 'Hey' at the lockers like he always did. He'd had his arm around Jen Macey's waist, and it had been like he and Bender had never done anything at all. It hadn't felt like a big deal at the time.
"Good," Mr Kwan said suddenly from the other side of the room, and Bender dragged his eyes from Brian's face. It was too hot. He could feel himself sweating.
Mr Kwan came over with his coffee cup and showed everyone how to do a proper leak-down test. Afterwards, he caught Bender in the doorway. "That was some good work," he said.
Saturday was just Bender and Vernon again. "Maybe I'll sit in here today," Vernon said after the speech. "Keep an eye on you."
Bender stared straight ahead. "Fine by me," he lied.
Carl arrived ten minutes into it. There were some problems with the lights, he said. He needed to check them all. He wiped down the desks after he'd finished. Then he vacuumed. He eyed the dick Bender had drawn on the statue. "Hey." He tossed Bender a rag moistened with turps. "Make yourself useful."
Vernon came back a few times. One time, near the end of the day, Carl had gone to the bathroom so it was just Bender in the room.
"You want to talk smart to me now?" Vernon said.
Bender chewed the inside of his cheek so he wouldn't accidentally answer. It didn't work. "So, you want to know the other reason I can tell that your life is the pits?"
Vernon raised his eyebrows. "Enlighten me."
"Cause you're wearing that in public. Anyone gave a crap about you, you wouldn't look like such a dick all the time."
Vernon laughed. He looked around the room like he was getting acknowledgement from an imaginary audience. "Remember how I said I was going to kick the shit out of you?"
Bender rolled his eyes. "I cry myself to sleep about it."
Vernon's arm moved suddenly, and Bender flinched. It was just a feint. Vernon's arm moved again. Bender tried not to react, but his body jerked back of its own accord. Another feint. The door opened. Carl. Bender breathed in and out slowly. He hoped he wasn't going to puke.
Carl didn't leave the room for the rest of the detention. Bender didn't think about anything. He thought about the motorcycle in Shop. They'd fixed the compression leak, but the engine still wasn't starting. "You got all the parts. You gotta work it out," was all Mr Kwan would say.
At the end of the day, Carl caught Bender in the parking lot. Bender was trying to get a flame from his lighter. His stupid hands were still shaking.
"He wants you to quit," Carl said.
Bender flicked the lighter. He flicked it again. He finally got a flame. "Yeah? Well why don't I make us both happy then," he said. He sucked in smoke, and felt better than he had all day.
Monday, Bender walked through the hallway, dodging jocks and all their peripherals - shoes, sweaters, smell.
"Hey dumb-ass," someone said, and Bender swung around, half itching for an unfair fight. But he wasn't the target - some dweeb had stumbled into jock territory with an armful of books and no sense of self-preservation.
"I'm just- I'm going this way," the dweeb said. And- fuck. It was Brian. Bender was moving before he'd even thought about it.
"No kidding. Me too," the jock was saying.
Brian said: "This way. I meant this-" And then the jock had his hand bunched in Brian's collar. The gesture was casual like he did it all the time, and Bender couldn't breathe. He elbowed the guy's hand away, shoved him backwards into the wall.
"What the fuck?" The guy pushed Bender off him. He seemed confused. He was one of Claire's not-friends. Bender recognised him from some of the parties Claire had taken him to. The guy looked at Brian uncertainly. "You know him?" he asked Bender. "He's just a-"
"Shut up!" Bender shoved the guy back into the wall. Behind him he could hear Brian breathing shakily. He was surprised by how much that filled him with rage. He thought about Brian standing up to Vernon. This jerk-wad would pee his fucking pants if Vernon even looked at him.
A month to go, Bender reminded himself. The urge to blow it all on a good fight was overwhelming. And it fit. It made sense in a way that a high-school diploma didn't.
"What's going on?" someone said suddenly. Another jock. Bender turned. It was Andy.
Andy raised his eyebrows at Bender questioningly.
The guy straightened up. "This dude wants a fight," he told Andy.
Andy's eyes narrowed. "Nah." He said it casually, but his mouth was tight. He jerked his chin towards the locker room. "C'mon man. Let's go. Coach wants a word."
"No," Bender wanted to say. His skin itched all over from the anticipation of pounding the guy. One more month, he thought. He closed his mouth and let Andy drag the guy away.
When he turned around, Brian seemed frozen. People were staring at them - Bender's friends, Brian's friends.
"Thanks," Brian said. His voice sounded hoarse. Bender squeezed his fists tight so he wouldn't do something stupid like go after the guy again.
"Hey," Bender said. "Just returning the favour."
"Oh." Brian's shoulders loosened a bit. He met Bender's eyes, as if he wasn't sure if Bender was mocking him. Bender kept his expression serious.
"Okay?" Bender said.
Brian nodded. "Okay."
Brian was there again on Saturday. Bender mentally 'blah blah blahed' through Vernon's speech about shutting up and not sleeping and Vernon being lord of the trashpile that was this school.
"You sick of me yet?" Vernon asked Bender at the end of it.
It was too fucking early to let Vernon bait him. "Just gonna do my hours today," Bender said. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Brian look relieved.
After Vernon left, Bender found himself sneaking real looks at Brian. He was writing an essay today with a lot of scratching out. Bender watched his fingers move - easy, then hesitant, then easy. He made himself look away. He looked at the wall, at the floor. He looked at the arch of the statue. It reminded him of the line of Brian's neck.
"You don't have to keep coming to these things," he blurted after a while.
Brian didn't answer straight away. He scratched out a sentence, wrote another one and then scratched that out too. "You don't have to be here," he said. "But you keep coming back."
"Yeah, I'm a regular regular," Bender muttered.
He tried to explain it properly after lunch. "I'm a bad bet," he said. "I'm not worth your time. What if I don't show next week? Don't know if you've noticed but I'm not exactly reliable."
"Hmm," Brian said. His expression was unreadable.
It rained all afternoon. Bender tried to nap. He could hear Brian breathing when he closed his eyes. He opened his eyes and was drawn back to watching Brian shifting around in his seat. It was torture.
There was a small blue mark just under Brian's collar. "That stuff happen to you much?" Bender asked. He tried to sound casual about it. "Jocks in the hallway?"
Brian's jaw tightened. "Does it happen to you much?"
Bender started to frown, and then remembered that he'd said a lot of stuff in that first detention. He forced himself to look nonchalant. "So when?" he said. "Before school? Between classes?"
Brian didn't answer.
"After school?" Bender asked.
Brian wrote something. He scratched it out. He took a deep breath, and then sighed it slowly out like he was trying to calm himself down. His voice was calm when he spoke. "You know what I think about a lot?" he said.
Bender raised his eyebrows.
"I think about how small this place is," Brian said. "It's really fucking small."
Bender blinked at the curse word, at the shape of Brian's mouth when he said it. He wanted Brian to say it again. He belatedly heard the rest of what Brian had said.
"I think about leaving all the time," Bender admitted. And then he blurted: "When I walk up Main Street, when I see the same grocery store, same diner, same movie theatre, same fucking flower shop, I feel like I'm wearing a straitjacket". He felt heat climb up his neck. He'd never told anyone that. Out loud the straitjacket bit sounded pretty weird.
Brian didn't look freaked out. "Yeah," he said.
At the end of the day, Vernon came in to dismiss them. "I don't want to see you again, young man," he said to Brian.
"The feeling's mutual," Brian muttered low enough so that only Bender could hear.
Outside, the rain had stopped. The ground smelled like wet grass and dirt. Bender set off towards the football field, feeling inside his pocket for a cigarette
"Hey," Brian said.
"I'll be here next week. Just so you know." He hesitated, and then looked angry. Maybe even really angry "You want to know what I've noticed? I've noticed you've been here at 7 am every Saturday for twelve weeks. Sounds kind of reliable to me."
Bender blinked. After a minute or so he realised his mouth was open. He closed it. He stood there until Brian had walked out of sight.
Brian arrived at school stupidly early every morning. His mom dropped him off.
Bender found out accidentally on Tuesday. He'd come in early to try something new with the engine. Mr Kwan had started leaving the keys to the workshop with the school secretary. "I trust you kids," he'd said to the class - maybe foolishly.
Brian was already in the workshop that morning. He didn't seem to be doing any work though. The engine was still neatly covered up.
"Hi," Brian said. I'm just-" He gestured vaguely in the direction of the engine and then seemed to realise there was a sheet over it. He shrugged.
Bender pulled off the sheet. He wondered if Brian had to lie low every morning. He felt a muscle in his jaw jump. "Jocks come in early for practice?"
Brian shrugged. He watched Bender pull out the toolkit. "What are you doing?"
"I don't know," Bender said honestly. He knelt down to lay out all the tools. "Just messing around with it."
There was a little rust on the frame. Bender found some sandpaper to work on it. Brian leaned against a bench across the room and watched him. It was a comfortable silence.
After a while, Brian's legs appeared in his field of vision. For a skinny guy, he had surprisingly big thighs.
"Hey," Brian said. "Can I ask you something?"
Brian crouched down. His face was right next to Bender's. Bender felt his own breath start to come faster. He wondered if Brian had kissed anyone before. He wondered if he was still a virgin. "All that stuff Mr Kwan was saying last week about the intake valve and the piston rings," Brian said.
Bender concentrated hard on rubbing a speck of rust off with the sandpaper. "Yeah?"
Brian bent his head closer. "I didn't understand it," he said, and he said it quiet and fast like it was a deep personal confession - the way you might say 'I like guys the way I like girls'.
"Oh," Bender said. He swallowed. It sounded loud. There was no sound outside the room. It felt like they were the only people in the whole school.
Brian face had started to redden, and Bender realised that he probably didn't go around telling everyone he didn't understand stuff. Bender bit his lip. He wanted to say something reassuring. He wanted to say that Brian was smarter than anyone he knew. That if jocks were fucking with him, Bender wanted to know about it. That Bender would have dropped out already if it wasn't for him. That who gave a fuck about Shop anyway.
Instead, he lowered his voice to match Brian's quiet tone. "Okay-" He rolled the sandpaper into a tube. "Imagine this is the intake." He plugged a finger into one end. The gesture was dirtier than he'd meant it to be. He found himself reddening as well. "And this is the valve," he said quickly.
Detention thirteen, Bender got there just ahead of Brian. At the end of the speech, Vernon looked down at Brian contemptuously. "By my count, this is detention four for you," he said. "Maybe loserhood is contagious. Or maybe-" He looked at Bender and sing-songed: "-someone's got a crush on you."
Brian flinched, and Bender felt a sting of anger like an electric shock. It was like a double mind-fuck - messing with Brian's head and an echo of Bender's own pathetic feelings. He realised he was clenching and unclenching his fists. "You always this interested in your young charges?" he said.
Vernon blinked as though he wasn't sure he'd heard right. "What?"
"I said. Are you-"
"Bender." Brian was looking at him almost pleadingly. Bender hesitated. Brian shook his head slightly. Bender closed his mouth, and then clenched his teeth tight until he was sure he wouldn't blurt out anything else.
For the rest of the morning, Brian did math. He hardly looked at Bender at all.
"Look," Bender said after lunch. "I know you don't have a-" He sighed. "Vernon's a jerk."
"Yeah." Brian said. He rubbed his mouth. The back of his neck was red. "He's a real jerk."
After that, it was awkward, but better. "You still got that nerd game?" Bender asked.
"The-" Brian blinked. "The chess set? Sure."
"You wanna take a break?"
They played until it was time to leave - moving the set off the desk whenever Vernon came in to check on them. Bender lost every time, but it wasn't like he cared.
They packed up at the end of the day. "Bet your parents are real happy about these detentions," Bender said.
"Oh, I just-" Brian grinned - his first real smile since Vernon had arrived that morning. "I tell them I'm studying in the library. Which-" he gestured at the shelves, the walls and his grin widened. "Plus, I got accepted into MIT a couple of weeks ago."
"Jesus." Bender picked up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. They walked out of the library together. "Could you be any more of a dweeb cliche? Why are you still bringing schoolwork in?"
Brian shrugged. "Getting a head start on college."
Jesus. Bender opened the door out into the parking lot. Brian headed to the bus stop. "Hey," Bender called out. Brian turned around. "Congratulations on getting out of here." He really meant it too.
Brian's smile was a little shy. "Thanks," he said.
There wasn't any point in graduating - that was the thing. Guy like Bender wouldn't ever get the kind of job that required a high school diploma.
Except, on Thursday afternoon, Bender finished cleaning off all the rust. He kicked the engine over and it started. It was the most beautiful sound he'd ever heard.
Mr Kwan took him aside after class. "Let me know if you want to do this for real someday," he said. "I know a guy. Might want a smart apprentice."
Bender's heart stopped for a second. Then it started to race. "Here in Shermer?"
Mr Kwan shrugged. "Maybe. Or Chicago. Boston. I know quite a few guys."
Bender swallowed. He couldn't let himself want this too much, he told himself. Except, Christ he wanted it. "Tell them I can start right now."
Mr Kwan hesitated. Then he shook his head. "You're only a couple of weeks from graduating. How 'bout I tell them you can start after that."
Detention fourteen, the library was empty. Bender's heart sank. He found a chair and braced himself for a day alone with Vernon.
A couple of minutes later, Andy appeared. Then Allison. Vernon followed.
"I'm disappointed, Mr Clark," Vernon said to Andy. He frowned at Allison as though he still had no idea who she was.
"I'm disappointed in myself, sir," Andy said with such false sincerity that Bender had to snort.
"So what'd you do?" he asked Andy when Vernon had left. He was idly curious about whether Andy would lie.
"Oh." Andy shrugged. "I just-"
"He fucked a tub of jello in the dining hall," Allison said.
"What?" Bender looked at Andy.
"What?" Andy said. "Jesus. No. No, I- I swore at the coach."
Allison smirked. Then she and Andy spent pretty much the rest of the detention making out while Bender shifted and shifted and adjusted his pants, and tried not to listen to the sounds they were making. He tried not to think about Brian.
The morning of the last detention, Bender woke up and felt like he was still dreaming. He hadn't let himself think past the detentions, but he guessed if he made it to the end of the day, he was graduating. No more Saturdays with Vernon, no more school. Maybe no more Shermer if Mr Kwan's job worked out. The picture of it in his head didn't match any of the futures he'd imagined.
When he got to the library, Brian was already there. He looked surprisingly relieved when he saw Bender. "Hi," he said.
Bender jerked his chin up. "Hi." He was relieved to see Brian too. He could admit that. After their last detention, Bender had hardly seen him - not in the workshop before school, not in the corridor between classes. If he'd needed any proof that Brian didn't need his help with jocks, that master class in evasion was plenty.
Vernon arrived on time as usual. He gave his speech. No moving. No mouthing off. Blah fucking blah. "Thank God this is the last week. I'm so sick of your dumb-ass faces," he added at the end.
"You ever think about retiring?" Bender asked. "Trying out another career?"
"All the fucking time," Vernon said. He sounded so heartfelt that Bender was kind of taken aback.
After Vernon left, Bender felt a strange wave of exhaustion wash over him. He looked across the aisle. Brian was tracing the edge of his desk. The silence felt awkward. Bender turned his head to the nearest fire exit. Nine more hours. He'd already done this fourteen times, but it suddenly seemed like longer than he could bear.
Bender turned back. Brian quirked his mouth wryly. "I brought-" He reached down and scrabbled in his bag for a moment. He sat up again, and showed Bender the chess box. "In case you need distracting."
"Yeah," Bender said. He felt absurdly grateful - for the distraction and for Brian saying a string of words in a row to him.
Brian smiled. It was a little tentative, but it was real. "Week fifteen," he said. "And you're still here."
"Yeah," Bender said again. He blew out a breath. He hadn't thought about it like that. Some of the awkwardness in the room seemed to recede.
Bender had brought cards. They played chess first (Bender lost, Bender lost) and then three rounds of poker (Bender won, Bender won, Bender won).
Brian dealt the next hand. "So they have a robot club at MIT," he said.
"Oh yeah?" Bender looked at his hand. Two kings. He savoured the hand and Brian's thought jump. He'd miss this - the way Brian could shift from one idea to another without anything in between. And thinking about it made his breath catch. He'd never imagined before these detentions that he'd miss anything after he left Shermer.
"Raise you," Brian said. He put a stick of gum on Bender's desk. "You'd be good at that stuff."
Bender added two more sticks of gum to the pile. "What stuff?"
"Robotics," Bender said. "Because you're so good with motors and mechanics."
Bender blinked. And that was just too big of a thought-jump for him to make sense of. He didn't even know what to say to it. He rearranged his cards to buy time. "I'm not going to MIT," he said finally and a bit lamely.
"No." Brian chewed his lip. He added a shoelace to the pile of gum. "Maybe you could still give me advice though." He said. His voice rose at the end like it was a question.
Bender looked up from his hand. He kind of assumed he'd never see Brian again after this week. He'd assumed Brian would be fine with that.
"Or- I mean, if you-"
"No, I'd like that," Bender said. Then he wondered, seeing Brian's surprised face, if he'd said it too fast or too loud or too eagerly. He called - mostly to push that look from Brian's face.
Brian had a pair of nines. They went back to chess.
Brian set up the pieces slowly. "So what'll you do with yourself next week?" he asked.
Bender thought about it. "Sleep in." He guessed he'd go back to Mr Kwan and find out if that offer was real - if he really knew lots of people in lots of places. "I dunno." He looked at Brian. "What about you? No more detentions for you either. That's something."
"Are you kidding?" Brian said. "This is the best part of my week."
He had a really good deadpan delivery. Bender laughed. It took him a second to realise that Brian wasn't laughing back. And then he must have looked confused, because Brian's expression shifted from serious to almost nauseated. He covered it quickly, though, with a forced smile.
"This is the best part of your week," Bender repeated disbelievingly.
Brian tried to hold on to the smile. He struggled for a second and then let go. "I don't know why I said that."
Bender stared at him. He thought about all the weeks behind them, about Brian sitting here from 7am to 4pm, Saturday after Saturday. He frowned slowly. "What Vernon said-
"Don't." Brian's tone was begging: Don't finish that thought. He moved a pawn almost randomly. His hand was shaking a bit.
Bender couldn't think. He felt like he was trying to solve a puzzle with pieces that didn't match the picture on the box. He moved a pawn. Brian moved a pawn. Bender moved another pawn.
"It was a stupid thing to say," Brian said. He sounded subdued. He sounded as though he thought he'd fucked up something that mattered to him. "I know this isn't a good part of your week."
"No," Bender said slowly. "It's been torture."
Brian's nodded jerkily. He moved a knight into the killing path of one of Bender's pawns. He didn't really seem to be looking at the board at all.
Bender moved the knight back to where it had come from. He decided to let himself hope. It was terrifying. He could feel his legs wobbling as he got out of his chair. He bent down and touched his mouth to Brian's - a question more than a kiss.
Brian's eyes widened disbelievingly and then went glazed and soft. He answered by leaning in and kissing Bender properly. Bender shivered into it. After wanting this without any hope of it happening, it almost didn't seem real.
Eventually, Brian pulled back, breathing warm unsteady puffs against Bender's mouth. "Torture?" he said.
Bender nodded. His throat felt dry. "Torture thinking about you all the time and not being able to do that."
"Oh," Brian said. He kissed Bender again almost thoughtfully. When he pulled away again, Bender struggled to catch his breath. "For me too," Brian said. "In case that wasn't clear."
There were five more hours of detention. They spent a lot of it making out. They stopped just before Vernon came in to watch them eat lunch. Bender tore the crusts off his sandwich and tried not to look at Brian sucking down his Coke. He felt sweat beading down the back of his neck.
After lunch, they dealt out another round of poker. Brian was the first to drop his cards. They made out some more. Bender coaxed Brian out of his seat to lean against one of the bookshelves. When he put his hand on Brian's thigh, Brian's whole body shuddered. Bender gentled the kiss and pulled back.
"I haven't- I've never kissed anyone before," Brian said.
"Oh yeah?" Bender said. He bit Brian's bottom lip softly.
"I like it," Brian added. He seemed a bit dazed.
Bender smiled into the next kiss. "Good," he said.
At 3.45, they were still making out. At 3.50, they were back in their seats. Bender's jeans were painfully tight. He looked at Brian and then wished he hadn't - his hair was mussed like he'd just got out of bed. His face was flushed.
Vernon came in. He folded his arms and stood there for the entire last ten minutes. "No final smart-ass comments?" he said to Bender while they waited. "Nothing more to say?"
Bender thought about it. He flashed on Brian leaning dazedly against the shelf. He realised he was grinning stupidly. "Nah," he said. "I'm through."
"You're through?" Vernon said challengingly. There was a faint note of disappointment underneath.
Bender looked over at Brian. He was resting his mouth against his fist. There was a grin behind his hand. Bender smiled wider. "Yeah," he said. "I'm through." He looked back over at Vernon. "See you on the podium."
They left the library at 4.01. Carl came around the corner. He was mopping something.
"Bye, Carl," Brian said.
Bender nodded. "See you round."
Carl touched a finger to his forehead in a lazy salute. The mark on the floor disappeared under his mop. "Pretty sure you won't," he said. He lifted the mop and surveyed the floor with an air of professional satisfaction. "And I'm a good judge when it comes to stuff like that."
Outside, summer was everywhere. The grass was yellow and crisp. The sun glared sharply off Vernon's car in the parking lot and the metal rails along the pathway. Bender thought about writing something on Vernon's car as a farewell gift - 'Jerkwad' or 'Bye Dick' - but it seemed kind of a waste of time. He tipped his head back and let the sun warm his face. The sky looked endless.
Brian bumped his shoulder with his own, and Bender smiled. He kissed the corner of Brian's mouth.
Brian smiled back. "C'mon," he said. "You want to get out of here?"
"Yeah." Bender tugged his sunglasses out of his pocket and put them on. He put his back to the school and turned to face Brian and whole the rest of the world. "Let's go."