From Chapter 4
By Paul Russell
[In study hall, Noah thinks about everything but his schoolwork.]
Beneath the bleak fluorescent lighting of study hall, where thirty of them hunched diligently over their work, Mr. Brill somehow managed to grade papers at his desk in the front of the room and keep watch at the same time, his sinusy breathing audible, like a slippery fish hauled up on deck and gasping.
No distractions: that was key. In Noah's dorm room there were way too many things to lead him astray, variously collected rocks and seashells and wasp nests whose contemplation could fritter away an hour of valuable study time before he even realized it. Particularly alluring: a foot-long fish fossil from Wyoming his dad had sent him on his fifteenth birthday. Its fifty-million-year-old skull and backbone, its delicate fins and scissored tail, all lay precisely etched in the undulating sandstone. He could daydream about just about anything except, unfortunately, algebra. Nothing made him feel stupid like numbers made him feel stupid. He'd rather count all the bones on that fish.
From time to time, his voice bored and slightly bullying, Brill punctuated the quiet with more than just his breathing. "Mr. Delson," he called out, his ancestor no doubt closely related to that fish from Wyoming, "let's stop dreaming about ice cream cones, or whatever it is you're dreaming of."
In the back of the room, somebody suppressed a snicker. Brad Delson sat, lost in thought, idly licking the tip of his ballpoint pen. Supposedly it was all for their own good. Since Noah had been at the Forget, his own habits had definitely improved: his academic tutor was cautiously pleased by his progress, and his English teacher said he'd really liked some of his more off-the-wall compositions, the ones he usually got Ds on in other classes. Go figure. But then, none of the other teachers at Forget wanted you to call them by their first name the way Tracy did.
"Mr. Laskii-Meyers," observed Brill, hardly bothering to raise his eyes from the page he was perusing, "I thought we weren't going to have any more fantasies about Jerry Garcia. The long strange journey is, alas, over."
On second thought, Brill wasn't so much a fish as a monkey, a baboon with his orangutan wife and chimplike children and an obsession not with bananas but with model trains. He'd commandeered the basement of Goethe Hall to lay out his train sets, miles and miles of track, miniature villages and tunnels and hills. The school's worst losers all flocked to the Miniature Railroad Club like moths, and though Noah had been down to Gorilla Brill's private domain only once, when all the newcomers had gotten dragged down there on a tour, those gloomy, cavernous basement rooms, originally built as bomb shelters (at least that was the rumor), had unaccountably spooked him. The doors were reinforced steel, huge concrete pillars supported the ceilings, there were two underground levels rather than one, and reputedly the shelters were still stocked with canned goods dating from the fifties. He hadn't seen any supplies when he was down there himself, but Joey Pinnavaia had lifted a few and displayed them, bulging and rust-spotted, along his windowsill. Forty-year-old green beans: now that was something that could set you thinking. When the big one came, Noah hoped somebody remembered to bring along a can opener.
Anyway, it was stupid to think you could survive a nuclear war. He tried to imagine what it would be like to be cooped up with no light or fresh air. Claustrophobia was no pretty thing. He'd go insane. He'd attack people with his bare hands.
When they ran out of food, what were they supposed to do? Eat one another like those people whose airplane crashed -- where was it, the Andes?
There he went again. Tom is six years older than Mike. Five years ago, Tom was three times as old as Mike. How old is each now? There was no hope for it. He read the problem in his algebra book six times in a row and still didn't have a clue how to solve it. Trains looped through it. A bomb exploded. An airplane crashed in its midst. He'd read somewhere that the thumb was the tastiest part of human flesh.
One more time he tried to focus; then, with a sigh, he gave himself over to his unruly thoughts.
Across the aisle, Christian Tyler was reading a music magazine he'd slipped into his notebook. With silent envy Noah watched the collage of photos and text that enlivened its pages. Chris was reading a tribute to Kurt Cobain.
It wasn't completely by accident that he'd picked a seat near Chris, though he was careful to make it look like one. There was something weirdly fascinating about a kid who'd inexplicably, over the course of a single summer, undergone a change so radical the Federal Witness Protection Program would have been proud of the results. Six months ago, flashing his good-boy smile, speaking bright nervous words that didn't say a thing, Chris had been totally forgettable. Active in the Boy Scouts, the Catholic society, the drama club and school newspaper. Never in trouble. On weekends his mom picked him up, took him home to Connecticut. But then summer came and maybe he'd gotten struck by lightning, because when he came back in September, not only had he shot up a couple of inches in height without, it seemed, gaining a pound; not only had he gone and dyed his hair lemony yellow and started wearing his clothes in some kind of purposeful disarray; but something deeper and stranger had happened. It was as if some other completely different creature inhabited his body. From coiled like a spring he went to limber as a willow tree, and his voice too, this loud, teasing singsong that made people nervous to be around, like he knew something funny on you but wasn't telling. Gary Marks started calling him the Fatwa -- who knew why, exactly? -- but it stuck. In a bathroom stall a warning one day appeared, scratched into the metal: CAUTION: THE FATWA LIMBO DANCES. Nobody even said the name Christian Tyler anymore, just the Fatwa.
Everybody stayed their distance, and Noah too. The Fatwa didn't seem to care. He strolled down the hallway with his head held high. Nobody roomed with him. Maybe it made sense: the school wasn't about to put anyone else in the Fatwa den. Still, it didn't seem quite fair -- the best room on the hall, a double big enough it could've been a triple, and nobody but the Fatwa bouncing around in there, maybe crazy. Who knew? People always had one kind of animal or another inside them, but if the Fatwa was carrying one, it was an alien from some completely different planet, something both scary and alluring in a dangerous sort of way. As for his own animal, Noah thought it was probably like a rat, like the wet slick-backed thing he'd seen climbing out of the school lake one day.
"Mr. Lathrop, Mr. Lathrop."
With good-natured mockery, Brill was calling his name. "Take your leave of whatever heavenly ladies are dancing in your head and come rejoin us here on good old planet Earth."
Though nobody laughed, he could feel his face flash crimson. You'll pay -- he tried to laser the thought into Brill's reptilian mind, but of course that was a mind too dense to get it.
As for his own mind, he guessed his concentration wasn't safe anywhere. The least little thing could send it off. He looked back down at the page -- James is twice as old as John, but four years ago, he was three times as old as John was. How old is each now? -- but not before stealing one last look at the Fatwa, who kept reading his covert magazine with the kind of concentration Noah could only envy. From time to time he brushed a lock of lemon-colored hair out of his eyes.