The gym stands on one side of the hall, Mr. Gates’s class on the other, and every day, after first period, the girls finishing PE and the boys finishing Bible meet in the middle, twisting around each other like the tails of two kites. Sometimes, if Kevin paces himself just right, he will fall into step with Stacey Bell and her friends, the lip-gloss girls, with brush furrows in their wet hair and Guess triangles on the pockets of their jeans. He basks in their incense of sweat and shampoo, thinking, This will be the day, the day I tell her a joke and graze her arm, a throwaway touch with the back side of my fingers, quick and cool, as if I don’t care. But then a locker slams shut or a voice cuts through the air and once again the tiny comforting thought caresses his mind: Tomorrow. You can be brave tomorrow.
The high school is all noise and unrest, nothing like the churchlike hush of the elementary school. Between periods the building fills with people shouting and running and flicking each other’s knuckles with pencils, with choir kids singing, photographers snapping pictures, drill-teamers cocking their hips, with couples bending hard into each other’s bodies. In class, each of them becomes the quietest possible version of himself, but in the hallways everyone is either a swerver or a strider. The swervers move this way and that, leaning and swaying like tops, taking the quickest possible route through the obstacle course of other people’s bodies, while the striders choose a single path and follow it like a marble rolling down a chute. Kevin is a born swerver. He likes the sensation of bobbing beneath someone’s upraised arm, slipping sideways past a big clump of juniors and seniors, that wonderful feeling of swiftness and intangibility. No one can catch him, no one can touch him. He could be a ghost rushing through a brick wall, a motocross racer, almost anything.
One day, just before the end of first period, the chemistry teacher across the hall, Mr. Schramm, seeds the corridor with sulfur pellets, hundreds of little yellow beads that pop open with the earthy stink of rotten eggs. The odor washes through the northern wing of the school. After the bell, as the boys in Kevin’s class step into the hallway, their faces take on the startled looks of sunbathers doused in cold water. They cough theatrically or give bewildered laughs or tack their hips to the side as if they’ve cut a fart. Stacey, walking just ahead of them in her denim skirt and white ankle socks, says, “Barf,” and tugs the collar of her shirt up over her nose to mask the smell. That mouth, those breasts—Kevin wants to make a little bed between them.
“Shit, man,” Learon Dalby says, taking an instinctive whiff. “This place fucking reeks,” and ting!, That’s what you get when the girls take PE, Kevin thinks.
There is funny ha-ha, and there is funny peculiar, and beneath a trapdoor in Kevin’s mind is a place where the two blur together, the place of jokes, churning so furiously that frequently, when it kicks up a line, he has no idea what it will turn out to be. He has discovered that whether a joke is truly witty doesn’t matter, only the glow in his voice, the glitter of invention. But Learon is one of the new kids, from Sylvan Hills or Geyer Springs, a tall ropey football player who isn’t familiar enough with Kevin to take it for granted that he is funny, and so he bungles the delivery.
“The girls. PE. You know, all that sweat.”
No one laughs. It is funny embarrassing.
Then Jill Wood says, “Or maybe it’s your upper lip, Kevin,” which everyone finds hilarious.
Kevin is baffled. He understands the implication of the joke, that he is the one who stinks, he who smelt it dealt it, but his upper lip? Why? Surreptitiously, he runs his fingers over his mouth, but they come back clean, smelling of soap, pencil lead, and the leather strap of the camera satchel he uses for a book bag—nothing disgusting. On the staircase landing, he calls out to M.B., who answers, “What did I say? I’m going by Matthew now, I said. Write it down.”
“Whatever. Hey, do you see anything on my upper lip?”
“Like your nose?”
“Yes. Exactly. Like my nose. Very helpful, M.B.”
The intercom makes its bell sound, a shrill tone with a strange dust of static at the beginning, and they hurry into their classes. In English, Miss Vinson fills the left side of the chalkboard with adjectives, then asks them to add their own words to the list: “Give me five adjectives, five attributes, you would use to describe yourself to a stranger.” Kevin is (1) scrawny, (2) oversensitive, (3) unathletic, (4) mouselike, and (5) girlfriendless. No, no, he is (1) friendly, (2) clever, (3) imaginative, and (4) likable. He is (5) awesome-beyond-all-adjectives. He is a good student, a fast writer. He charges through his assignments like a runner sprinting down a track, then sits at his desk daydreaming or reading novels, making up stories or mapping out dungeons. For the rest of the day, in Coach Daniel’s geography class, Mrs. Davis’s math class, Mrs. Bussard’s SRA class, he fills his spare time puzzling through Jill’s wisecrack. Either she chose a part of his body at random, or there is something special about his upper lip, something he cannot figure out. The question is, what makes his upper lip unique? He has noticed that it has a tiny discoloration just off-center, soft and pale, like a cut immediately after it has finished healing, but how would Jill have seen that? He spotted it only a few nights ago himself, and solely by chance, studying his face in the bathroom mirror to see if he could make his tongue ripple. What else? His upper lip is pink and slender, much thinner than his lower lip. It is shaped like a bird in a landscape painting, that bow-like symbol that preschoolers learn with their first box of watercolors: an M with its legs pulled flat. In the winter sometimes, when he forgets to wear ChapStick, the skin above his lips grows so red that it looks like the stain from a cherry popsicle—but that’s in January and February, not the second week of September. His ideas are getting less complicated by the minute. Let’s see: his upper lip is above his chin and beneath his nose. It is part of his mouth. He talks with his mouth, he sings with his mouth, he eats with his mouth, and he drinks with his mouth. He uses his mouth to smile, to pout, to whistle, to yawn, to spit, to breathe, and to kiss. And that, he finally decides, is it. His upper lip or his lower lip, it makes no difference—he uses them, uses them both, to kiss. Jill’s put-down meant that he had kissed something repulsive. She was saying that he is an ass-kisser.
He feels the satisfaction of cracking the code, a fine warm body-lightness that causes his fingers and toes to tingle. Simultaneously, though, he can’t help but wonder if Jill is right. Is he an ass-kisser, a suck-up? How would he know? The truth is he spends thirty minutes of every hour suspecting he has missed some essential clue about himself. And not only himself—he has a recurring fantasy that one night, while he was asleep, the entire world was transformed into an alien planet, but no one bothered to tell him, and he didn’t have the instinct to figure it out, and here he is now on a wild new Earth, walking around like an imbecile, as if everything he knows hasn’t fallen away behind him like a river plummeting over a precipice.
At three thirty, the final bell rings. He returns to his home room to collect the overnight bag with his clothes and his toiletries. Then he follows the crowd to the buses centipeding across the parking lot, a half dozen idling old athletic vehicles, their yolky orange color faded by the sunlight. It is a golden Friday afternoon, the very last minute of the school week, and for a moment he simply stands there at the edge of the weekend. The days and nights make a quiet sound of possibility, rustling and ticking like a dark forest. The campground at Lake Bennett, forty miles up the highway, is hosting a sleepaway for everyone at CAC, seventh-graders through seniors, permission slips required, and who knows what could happen between now and Monday morning?