Jonathon Hall was a rebel. A free spirit. A firebrand. So why, exactly, was he in orchestra? He'd never done anything so bad to deserve to be forced to blow into the brass monstrosity called a trumpet. Sure, he'd spray-painted a few walls, keyed a car or two, and gotten drunk a handful of times. But honestly. Seventeen year olds should never be subjected to such torture.
At least, this is what was going through Jay's mind on that dull, dreary, rainy May afternoon. The woodwinds section was trilling and shrieking their way through Mozart's "Spring" symphony, giving Jay quite the splitting headache, and now he was lamenting the fact that he'd decided to come to school at all. Not interested in the least—when was he ever?—he'd let his scuffed and secondhand trumpet rest uselessly on his faded denim-clad knees, and he'd contented himself in watching and counting each drop of rain that landed on the classroom window. The current total was 451 so far.
Jay started, and his trumpet slid off his knees and onto the floor with a loud crash; the entire orchestra was staring at him with extreme reproach, evident in the ways they held their various cymbals, trombones, piccolos, and violins like sabers and javelins. Not at all unusual. "What?" Jay said finally, retrieving his instrument.
"Would you mind—paying—attention, Mr. Hall, or would you like to pay a little visit to the administrator's office?" Mr. van Houten, their rather eccentric old orchestra teacher, bobbed up and down on his conductor's dais, his thin white hair drifting about his wrinkled scalp. Jay half-wondered if it wasn't actually cloud.
"Don't have a heart-attack, Gramps," Jay muttered, slumping in his chair. The bassoonist on his left gave him a dark look.
Mr. van Houten pointed a long, gnarly finger at Jay. "Come up here, boy."
Jay got to his feet and shuffled between the music stands and various instrument cases until he was in the aisle separating the percussionists from the strings. Stupid old fart.
"Bring your trumpet, Mr. Hall."
Jay sighed heavily, turned around, shuffled back to his spot, retrieved the instrument, and slouched back up to the platform upon which van Houten was standing.
"Good, good," the wrinkled, primeval man said, motioning Jay closer. "Now, play."
Jay rolled his dark eyes toward the rafters, but raised his trumpet to his lips and blew hard; the ensuing strident squawk made several flutists jump.
"No, no, no," van Houten snapped. "Play like I know you can, Mr. Hall."
Jay sighed again and lifted the instrument another time. Idiot. But he let his fingers roll over the keypads, and the brassy, sparkling notes of "Reveille" filled the room.
"Excellent," said van Houten when he'd finished. "Marvelous! Now, could you possibly—"
His piping voice was drowned out by the drumming of the shrill bell outside in the hall. Before the teacher could give him any more instructions, Jay leapt off the platform, snatched up his trumpet case, and escaped from the orchestra room as fast as he could.
If there was one thing that Jay prided himself on, it was the efficiency with which he got to each of his classes. Endless hours spent mopping the old tile floors had taught him every shortcut on the entire Paul Watson Public High School campus. For some reason, however, every one of his teachers seemed surprised when he showed up on time.
The one class that he couldn't stand most of all—and therefore succumbed to the temptation to ditch most often—was American Historical Studies II. You knew immediately by the name of the course that it would be stupid. Couldn't they just say 'History for Seniors Who Flunked It the First Time?' It seemed that Paul Watson and his faculty thought that Jay hadn't suffered enough in Social Studies and then American Historical Studies I—not to mention A.H.S II last year. Conspiracies, Jay knew for certain. Especially since he'd been stuck with Mr. Sherman again.
The instant you walked into Mr. Sherman's room, you knew exactly what subject he taught: every inch of the available wall space was covered in what must have been once an entire rainforest's worth of historical paraphernalia. Postcards from such places as Colonial Jamestown and Appomattox; pictures of Mount Vernon and the Lincoln Memorial; an authentic World War II G.I.'s helmet; ancient scraps of paper bearing autographs from Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt; and even a large poster promoting the war against Hitler.
But it was all too obvious what his real passion was—and this made Jay want to throw up with the stupidity of it all—the Civil War. One entire wall of the classroom was taken up by an enormous, intricate map of "The General William T. Sherman's Glorious March To The Sea," detailing all of the war hero's famous battles—and this was Mr. Sherman's claim to fame, being a distant relation of said general. Hanging behind the teacher's desk was a large, torn blue flag with a red 'X' down the center. What it represented, Jay didn't know and didn't care. All he was concerned with was surviving this final class and escaping to go home.
"Welcome back, Jonathon," Mr. Sherman said cordially as Jay took his seat in the back.
Jay shrugged, ignoring the curious looks he was getting from his classmates as they filed in. Sure, he'd ditched yesterday, but it was none of their business. The bell shrilled again, and Mr. Sherman took a stack of papers to the front of the room.
"Welcome back, everyone," he began, rapping on his podium. "Today's agenda is…"
Jay tuned Mr. Sherman's voice out like a static-y radio station. Rebecca DeVer had chosen the seat in front of him today, and her long sheet of strawberry blonde hair was demanding all of his attention. She was giggling and flirting with Matt Walding, Paul Watson's star soccer player. Football must be out of season, Jay reasoned. Matt seemed to be enjoying Rebecca's attention—poor idiot. Was Jay the only guy here who had a brain in his head? Sure, Rebecca was hot, but she had the intelligence of a dead stick—and the personality of one, too. Oh, well. There was no harm in looking, was there?
Apparently, there was. It seemed like only a moment had passed since the beginning of the class when Rebecca turned around—Jay caught his breath—and handed him a sheet of paper with a disdainful look. Jay made a face at the back of her head when she faced front again.
"If you will all please be sure to read these requirements carefully," Mr. Sherman was saying, "this project will be as effortless as wearing a suit of grey. But if you don't, I can guarantee you that it will be as hard as bearing the regimental colors at Gettysburg."
Jay rolled his eyes, though one or two Civil War geeks chuckled at Mr. Sherman's poor excuse for a joke. What was Gettysburg, anyway? Who cares. Five minutes until school's out.
"Pair up, please, and you may use the time remaining to begin planning these projects."
Jay slumped down in his chair and decided he'd better read the instructions, since he knew he'd be doing this so-called project on his own. After all, he did want to graduate. "American Historical Studies II Final Project," the paper read. "This project is to be something of your own choosing. However, there are several requirements that it must meet in order for me to allow it. Number one: it must have visual aids. If you write a paper, be sure to include plenty of pictures and diagrams, and be able to explain them. Number two: if you do a poster board or other display, make sure it is high school-level work, not sloppy and covered in glue. Number three: any other ideas must be discussed with me, and it must be school-appropriate. This project is due—"
Jay looked up from the paper to see a girl—he couldn't remember her name—seat herself next to him. "Who are you, exactly?" he asked without preamble.
She didn't even bat an eyelash. "I thought you might not know. So I'm Char. Char Davis. Would you mind at all if we partnered up on this project?"
He looked at her. She was definitely not Rebecca DeVer—in fact, Jay was ready to say she was the opposite. Char had a long nose, frizzy brown hair, and none of Rebecca's general slim attractiveness. But she seemed smart enough. "Sure," he said with a shrug.
Char grinned. "You're Jonathon, right?"
"Do you have any nicknames? I've heard you being called Jay."
Char looked down at her paper. "I have an idea for our project. You don't mind getting in costume, do you?"
Now he remembered who she was! His nose wrinkled in distaste. She was one of them—a history geek, just as obsessed with the Civil War as Mr. Sherman. "You've got to be kidding."
"No, actually. What I was thinking was that we do a sort of filmed documentary-reenactment thing. We could get Confederate or Union uniforms from a supplier and dress up and then film reenactments of battles like Gettysburg and Antietam!"
Jay felt the corner of his lip lift in a sneer. This chick was crazy—everything about her smacked of overachiever and teacher's pet. He looked at her unruly brown curls and decided they were ridiculous; he watched her light brown eyes dance with anticipation and decided she was a loser. "That's a really stupid idea. Sorry"—he really wasn't—"but it's just stupid."
The light in her eyes disappeared, and her jaw jutted forward just the tiniest bit. "All right, then, Jay, what do you suggest?"
He shrugged carelessly and slouched in his seat. "Whatever."
Char's face darkened, but she pulled a pen out of her pocket and wrote something on her paper. "Well, let's just plan on the reenactment for now, Jay."
"Char," he snapped back. How dare she, a junior, try to tell him what to do! "What kind of name is that, anyway? Just as stupid as your idea."
She was about to retort, but the final bell rang, and Jay darted out of his seat. "See ya, wouldn't want to be ya," he called over his shoulder, dashing to his locker.
When he'd gotten his things and shoved them in his backpack, Jay walked back down the still-crowded hall to the door, passing the orchestra room and Mr. Sherman's room on the way there. But he backpedaled. Char was speaking to Mr. Sherman in an almost teary voice, and Jay could've sworn he'd heard her say his name.
"…I don't think I can, Mr. Sherman," she was saying. "Everything I suggested…"
"Don't worry, Char," he replied soothingly. "Jay has a tough exterior, but I think he's actually very intelligent."
"I don't doubt that," Char answered. "But he's not very willing to help…"
"I'll consider that when I grade your project, don't worry."
"Thanks, Mr. Sherman."
Jay didn't stick around to hear more. Rage and hurt tumbling together in his stomach, he burst out the doors into the rain. What did he care? Why did he care? What business did Char and Sherman have talking about him like that? Another lawsuit, he thought angrily, stomping up his drive. The garage was empty, as usual—Carrie and George out again. Typical foster parents.
With a frustrated growl, Jay tossed his things on the floor in the mudroom. Damn school. Damn Carrie and George. Damn Mr. Sherman and his ridiculous project. Damn Char and her ideas. Jay, almost automatically, found one of Karen's hairpins on the dryer and let himself into the basement where George kept his liquor cabinet.
Hairpin in hand, Jay walked absently over to the old glass breakfront and picked the lock with ease born of continuous practice. Vodka or Sam Adams? he mused, scanning the many dusty bottles and cases. Picking the strongest vodka he could find and pulling it carefully out, he shut the cabinet, hurried back upstairs, and drank the bottle dry. He'd passed out on his bed before five o'clock.