The fight is going down tonight. By the time school lets out, word has spread. Even the Student Council types who have thrown the rare "Hey" David's way turn their backs on him.
"Just because you look weird, that's no reason why you have to act weird," kids whisper.
"If people like David just tried to fit in, they wouldn't have so much trouble."
"It's really not Kael's fault."
That would be Kael Grimes, David's main tormentor. David's ingrown hair. David's zit that never goes away. This is Minnesota, where people stare at anything new or different, but Kael has been watching him for eight months, six days, and about three hours. In other words, since David started high school here at Valley View High. Right now Kael and clowns are clustered twenty lockers down the hallway--as usual thinking David can't hear them. One of the many things Kael doesn't knowabout David is that his flesh-colored "hearing aids" are there to keep the sound out.
"I shouldn't have to look at that freak all day," Kael mutters. He's a short, wiry wrestler type with blond-tipped brown hair.
"His head looks like it got run over and squashed," a pal chimes in.
"His mother must have smoked crack or something."
"Maybe she drank a lot--there's that thing called feeble alcohol syndrome," Kael says.
David has been waiting for this moment. He gives his locker a major, theatrical I've-finally-had-enough slam and stalks up to Kael. Heads turn; people nudge one another. "Whoa, watch out!" somebody says.
Kael, whose father was a champion heavyweight wrestler at Valley View High not that many years ago (coaches still talk about him), straightens up his full five feet, four inches. "Hey, Stink, what's up?"
Laughter from Kael's crowd.
"It's fetal alcohol syndrome, you idiot," David says, "not 'feeble.' As in damage to the fetus. If anybody, you should know, midget." He's almost a foot taller than Kael, though he probably weighs the same.
Kael blinks several times. His pals look at one another; they're stuck on figuring out how David overheard them. David with his two hearing aids. "So, Stink, you read lips or something?" one of the clowns asks.
"Or something," David says.
Kael's neck seeps rusty red; he gets the fetal alcohol joke. He leans closer. "You know what, freak?" he says, his breath sugary rank from chewing tobacco. "Just for that I'm going to kick the crap out of you."
"You?" David says. "Or you and your feeble pals?"
"Just me. They can watch."
His gang laughs.
"Fair enough," David says. "Since you no doubt can beat me up, I should get to pick where and when--you know, like the dying prisoner's last request?"
Kael gets a blank, suspicious look; he glances, snakelike, to both sides without moving his head.
"Let him, Kael. Hey, why not?" his pals whisper.
Kael shrugs. "Okay."
"Tonight. Up on Barn Bluff, just after dark."
"Unless you're afraid of heights."
"Not me, Stink."
"Middle of the bluff, north side, by the lookout over the river?"
"I know where it is. We'll be there, Crackhead. Just make sure you are."
At home at supper with the Trotwoods, his foster parents, David tries to act normal. So to speak.
"Everything all right at school today?" asks Mr. Trotwood as he passes the potatoes. Earl Trotwood has a square face with kindly blue eyes and thick farmer'shands--because he is a farmer. A hog farmer. David lives on a hog farm--a modern, industrial one with low, shiny barns off-limits to visitors, but a hog farm nonetheless. David, who grew up in New York City. (He reminds himself of this with regularity because he worries about forgetting. Forgetting the city. Forgetting his mother.) But the Trotwoods are nice people who don't pry into his personal life. They don't go through his things. He has set traps for them in his room--arranged pencils and papers just so, measured their spacing before and after--but it's clear that they don't come into his room. Not like other foster parents he has had.
When he was twelve years old, his mother sent him to Minnesota, where he would be "safe." (Safe from what? He liked New York City, its people, its neighborhoods, its smells, its food.) He first stayed with distant relatives in South Minneapolis. Really distant relatives. The parents, a biker couple, were hardly ever home, so David and his second cousins ate lots of stolen candy bars, plus pet food when they were really hungry. Canned cat food, especially Purina brand with "chicken bits," was not that bad. However, Social Services people caught up with the family, and all of the kids ended up in foster care. His mother wrote that she would come for him--but only when she got "stronger." "For now, anywhere in Minnesota is probably better than with me," she wrote. The Trotwoods, for reasons beyond David's brain, picked him out of a foster care listing of "Kids Who Wait" and brought him home.
"School? Pretty much okay," David replies. He shovels in another mouthful of food; this keeps him from having to talk.
Mr. and Mrs. Trotwood exchange a glance. In the silence, David's fork clinks loudly on his plate.
"Remember, David, the first year of high school is tough for everyone," Margaret Trotwood says. "Turning sixteen is not an easy time." She has an open face and warm blue eyes that have never looked on him with anything but kindness; he also knows that she talks to his high school counselor behind his back.
"I'll remember that, ma'am, thank you," he says, and finishes up.
After supper he tends to his homework at the dining room table, periodically checking his watch as the sun sinks lower. It's spring, April in Minnesota, and while the days are warmer, they are still short. "Darn!" he says suddenly.
"What is it, David?" Mr. Trotwood asks from his recliner.
"I forgot to do my history assignment."
"What kind of assignment?" Mrs. Trotwood asks.
"Some research on the Vietnam War," David answers.
"Can't you go online?" Mr. Trotwood asks. "You're welcome to use my office." Despite his flannel shirts and faded denim overalls, there are no flies on this hayseed: He has a souped-up Gateway computer in his office and multiple live feeds from fixed cams in his farrowing barn.If you want to watch pig birthing or track growth curves and feed budgets, Mr. Trotwood's office is the place to be.
"We're supposed to find an actual book--so we don't forget how, Mrs. Johnson says."
The Trotwoods look at each other; that makes sense to them. "I suppose you could drive to the public library in town," Mrs. Trotwood says. "You have your farm driving permit."
"It won't take long, I promise," David says, and gathers up his things.
"Be home by nine thirty!" she calls after him. "And remember your shower tonight. Hygiene is important for growing young men."
"Yes, ma'am," he says. All his foster parents found some way to comment on his body odor, a unique scent that clung to him, resistant to all soaps and hot water. Beyond being able to drive at fifteen, the only other possible benefit to living on a hog farm was that it sometimes masked his smell. But not to Mrs. Trotwood.
"Call us if you have trouble of any kind," she hollers.
"Thank you. I will," he calls back. He feels bad lying to the Trotwoods about his evening plans, but only briefly. It's almost like they're asking for it.