The year is 1987. Alex MacDonald and Roger Kruger are walking to school. But they enounter four of their classmates in the graveyard across the street from the school. One is Alex's secret crush, Jennifer. But Jennifer's boyfriend, Todd, is Alex's not-so-secret bully. Todd throws Alex to the ground, while Todd's best friend, Kevin, and Kevin's girlfriend, Bonnie, cheer him on. But Jennifer steps in and orders Todd to let Alex go. It's a typical start to a day of high school for Alex.
11:15 a.m. on October 2nd, 1987.
Alex hunches over his desk in Mrs. Greeley’s typing class, sketching a doodle of his original superhero creation, The Nullifer, in the margin of the handout exercise. He’s changed out of his muddy sweatshirt and into a shirt with horizontal black-and-white stripes and a tan jacket with the sleeves rolled up to mid-forearm. He’s also tied a white bandana around his head, a little lower than would be considered stylish, but positioned to hide the matted hair on the back of his head where he washed out the dirt from his encounter with Todd in the graveyard.
The clackity-clack from two-dozen electric typewriters creates a dull cacophony that echoes through the room, which is probably why Alex jumps so badly when Mrs. Greeley barks, “Mr. MacDonald.” Alex looks up to find the teacher towering over him – or at least as much as a five-foot-two woman can tower. Her arms are folded across her flat chest and two pencils protrude from her grey hair. Her lips are pursed under her pale mustache – a mustache the other kids make fun of, but not Alex. Mrs. Greeley’s mustache is thicker than his, and, frankly, he’s a bit jealous.
“Yes, Mrs. Greeley?”
“You are to be typing that handout, not defacing it.”
“I’m waiting for the Wite-Out to dry.”
“It was dry five minutes ago. Drawing cartoons will not prepare you for the future, Alex. Touch typing is an important skill for any career.”
“Yes, Mrs. Greeley.” Alex returns his attention to the typewriter. Mrs. Greeley returns to her desk, and her romance novel.
“High school is heinous,” Alex mutters.
“Mrs. Greeley’s bark is worse than her bite,” Roger says from the desk behind him.
“I’m not talking about Mrs. Greeley.”
“Oh. Todd. You need to learn to avoid trouble. Keep your head down, keep your mouth shut. Stop being a hero.”
“But they shouldn’t be able to get away with calling you names like that.”
“I can handle a few insults better than you can handle a punch in the face. You’re not Batman.”
“I don’t want to be Batman. I want to be Ferris Bueller. I want a bodacious girlfriend to take to Homecoming. I want to go to bitchin’ parties and skip class to drink in the graveyard. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be popular?”
“I don’t really like other people.”
Alex sighs. “Once I get out of here, I’m going to do things differently.”
Three rows back, Jennifer looks from Alex to her Duran Duran Trapper Keeper. Simon Le Bon is wearing the same striped shirt, jacket, and bandana as Alex. After ensuring that Mrs. Greeley is absorbed in her book, Jennifer sneaks up next to Alex.
Alex jumps again. When he sees that it’s Jennifer, he grins. “Yeah. I keep spare clothes in my locker just in case.” He can smell her Love’s Baby Soft perfume. It kind of makes him dizzy.
“I’m sorry Todd did that. You shouldn’t antagonize him.”
“I’ll try to remember that.”
“Do you know what chapters are going to be on the Social Studies test Monday?”
“Twelve through fifteen.”
Jennifer sighs. “Doesn’t Mr. Carlson know it’s homecoming weekend? I’m never going to be able to memorize three chapters worth of history facts.”
“I can help you study if you want.”
“Really? That would be totally awesome! How about tonight?”
Roger leans in. “We’re working on our science fair project tonight.”
“I can take an hour off to study,” Alex snaps. He gives Jennifer what he hopes is a dashing smile. “Seven p.m. at my house?”
Jennifer puts a hand on his forearm and Alex’s heart does a flip. “You’re the best, Alex.” She scurries back to her seat.
Once she’s gone, Roger whispers, “She’s just going to get you to do her homework for her. You shouldn’t let her take advantage of you.”
“If it wasn’t for her, Todd would’ve pounded me to a pulp this morning,” Alex points out.
“If it wasn’t for her, you’d be getting an A in Social Studies,” Roger replies.
* * *
After typing class, Alex and Roger join the flow of students heading toward the cafeteria for lunch. Jennifer skips ahead, her cheerleader skirt bouncing hypnotically. Alex slows his walk to enjoy the view as Jennifer joins Wendy and Bonnie, another cheerleader. Bonnie is sporting a bitchin’ tan and has pulled a portion of her crimped brown hair into a whale tail.
The three girls huddle as Wendy opens her locker. The inside of the locker door is decorated with pictures of Joan Jett and Billy Idol, and a big 8x10 glossy of Kevin in his football gear. Wendy retrieves a can of Rainier beer from behind her books and pops the top. Shielding themselves behind the locker door, the girls take quick sips between giggles.
“Rainier?” Bonnie says. “Barf.”
“Chill,” Wendy snaps. “When you get a fake ID, you can pick the beer.”
“Crap, Ms. Pfeifer!” Jennifer exclaims. Wendy shoves the beer back into the locker and slams the door, the clang echoing through the crowded hall.
Ms. Pfeifer is the vice principal, which means she’s the one in charge of discipline. The sea of students parts as she strides down the hall, heels clacking on the linoleum. Those heels add two inches to Ms. P’s already intimidating five-foot-ten frame. The wide shoulder pads on her dark blazer and billowing perm of tight dark-brown curls add to the intimidation factor, though blue eye shadow softens the sharp angles of her face. “Wendy,” she barks.
“Yes, Ms. P?” Wendy attempts a little big-eyed innocence.
“What are you wearing?” Ms. Pfeifer indicates Wendy’s T-shirt – black emblazoned with a yellow “Slippery When Wet” sign.
“It’s a Bon Jovi album,” Wendy protests.
“Well, it’s inappropriate for school.”
“What, is this any sluttier than what the cheerleaders wear?” Wendy gestures at Bonnie and Jennifer’s short skirts.
“Thanks a lot,” Bonnie says.
“This is athletic wear,” Jennifer protests.
Ms. Pfeifer ignores Wendy’s attempt at distraction. “Put on something appropriate, or I’m sending you home.”
“Like that’s a punishment,” Wendy grumbles, but she retrieves a sweatshirt from her locker and pulls it over her offensive T.
The show over, Alex and Roger continue on to the cafeteria at the end of the hall. The school mascot – a grinning mosquito – is painted above the double doors along with the words “MAGNOLIA HIGH MOSQUITOES!” The mosquito got top votes in a student poll back when Alex was in sixth grade. The high school was trying to find a less racially offensive mascot than the previous “Injuns.” “Mosquitoes” was submitted as a joke, and most likely won for the same reason, but somehow it stuck, and now the students have fun with it.
Today, Heidi Fleek is manning a card table off to one side of the entrance. As usual, she’s the picture of no-nonsense efficiency, from her straight, shoulder-length hair to her tan sweater and Levis jeans. Apparently, Alex thinks, no-nonsense means no style, either.
“Homecoming Dance tickets!” Heidi calls out. “Last day. They won’t be for sale at the door.”
“I wouldn’t be caught dead at something as lame as Homecoming,” Roger says loudly as they pass the table. He and Heidi have a kind of friendly rivalry. The kind that isn’t very friendly.
“So... couldn’t get a date,” Heidi shoots back.
Roger turns on her, eyes narrowing. “Are you going to the dance?”
“I’m chair of the Homecoming committee. I’m working the door.”
“So... couldn’t get a date,” Roger gloats.
“Lots of extracurricular activities will look good on my application to M.I.T.”
“Then you should be working on your science fair project. Because this year we’re going to crush you.”
“You mean under rubble when your entry explodes again?”
Roger’s face goes crimson at the reference to last year’s disaster. “I was sabotaged!” he cries.
“Yes... sabotaged by the crumbling U.S. educational system. What are you working on anyway?”
Eager to defend Roger, Alex jumps in. “We’re making a magnetic field generator—”
Roger elbows him in the arm, hard. “Hey!” Alex protests.
“We don’t share intelligence with our enemy.” Roger hisses, giving Alex a stern look.
Heidi rolls her eyes. “Are you buying Homecoming dance tickets, Alex? Some people actually like you.”
Unfortunately, Todd and Kevin happen to saunter up while Alex is stammering for an answer. “Yeah?” Todd laughs, “Like who? Sheepy McSheep?”
Alex bristles. “I’ll take two tickets, please.”
Everyone – Heidi, Todd, Kevin, and Roger – looks at Alex in shock. Alex slides ten bucks to Heidi. She gives him two tickets. Alex puts the tickets in his cloth wallet and seals the Velcro. He turns into the cafeteria, trying to walk casually. Roger scrambles to join him.
Alex and Roger step into the territorial minefield that is Magnolia High’s cafeteria. It’s already bustling, the conversations of 200 students mingling into a low rumble punctuated by the occasional laugh or scream. The vague odor of cooked meat mingles with a lemony chemical scent and a mildew undertone.
“Why did you buy tickets to the dance?” Roger asks. “You don’t have a date.”
“Maybe I’ll get one.” Alex says hopefully.
“You know it’s tomorrow, right?”
Alex just shrugs. He and Roger move through the tables, each controlled by a different social group. To the left of the entrance are the preppies. The boys wear black or teal Members Only jackets, Lacoste shirts with popped collars, and Top Sider shoes. The girls wear plaid skirts and pastel cardigans. Alex catches snatches of conversation about student council and SAT tests. Alex and Roger are not preppies.
Across from the preppies are the new wave kids. The boys, with their hair moussed into asymmetrical shapes and eyes highlighted with guy-liner, wear unstructured blazers and skinny ties. The girls wear side ponytails and have decorated the lapels of their neon Esprit blazers with small pins featuring bands like Flock of Seagulls and Adam Ant, or slogans like “Relax” and “Choose Life.” Alex and Roger are not new wave either. They keep walking.
At the next table are the hessians, with their long, stringy hair, biker jackets, Iron Maiden T-Shirts, and studded leather wristbands – on both the girls and the boys. Someone is playing the Scorpions, “The Zoo” on a boom box in clear violation of school rules. Alex and Roger are definitely not hessians.
Just past them are the break dancers with their Adidas and fake gold chains. All are boys. All are white. There are only a handful of Black kids at Magnolia High, and none would be caught dead sitting with the break dancers. The break dancers, on the other hand, would not be caught dead sitting with Alex and Roger. The boys keep moving.
The theater and band geeks have pushed two tables together. It’s a rowdy gathering, with two boys acting out a routine from Princess Bride and a band kid doing a drum solo on a couple of soda cans. Meanwhile, a group of stoners with flannel shirts and puka shell necklaces has cleared a space to play hacky-sack nearby. Alex and Roger are not in band or theater, and the one time Alex tried hacky-sack, he broke a car taillight.
The two boys reach the back of the cafeteria where Franny, a chubby girl in a blazer, sits by herself, reading the Wall Street Journal.
“Hey Franny,” Alex asks, “Can we join you?”
“Only if you’re quiet,” Franny says, without looking up. “I’m researching for my stock club.”
Alex rolls his eyes. “Franny… you do know Gordon Gekko was supposed to be the bad guy.
Franny slowly raises her eyes in a murderous glare. “Find. Another. Table.”
Roger shoots Alex a glare of his own for losing them the one place available to eat. The boys turn away – only to discover Todd and Kevin standing directly behind them.
Kevin snatches the brown paper bag containing Roger’s lunch from his hand. “Ooh, let’s see what sissies eat for lunch,” Kevin snickers.
In his peripheral vision, Alex sees Roger’s shoulders sag. This sends a wave of primal fury through Alex. He reaches out without thinking and grabs the bag back. “He’s probably full from eating your mom for breakfast.”
Kevin’s too startled to do more than stare dumbfounded at Alex, but Todd steps forward. “Careful, Jennifer’s not here to protect you this time, dweeb.” Todd gives Alex a little shove – more of a warning than an assault, but Alex stumbles back. As he tries to catch himself, his hand lands in something wet and slimy. Franny’s plastic bowl of chocolate pudding.
Todd laughs. Until Alex wipes his hand on Todd’s letterman jacket, streaking pudding across the large “M.”
“Hey!” Todd cries, “This jacket is new.”
“Not anymore,” Alex says. Man, he’s on fire today. But his pride in his snappy comeback fizzles when Todd cocks his fist to punch Alex in the face. Stupid snappy comebacks, Alex thinks as he scrunches his eyes closed.
Go to Chapter 3