Catherine was the new kid. That's how this story starts; her life was pretty fucked up before she ever came to that hellhole of a school in Massachusetts, but once she got there she knew it probably wasn't going to get any better. For starters: the school's name was Sandwich High School. Sandwich High School, as in the meal consisting of two slices of bread and an array of condiments between them. Then there was the fact that it was September. School had been in session a couple weeks, so she wouldn't be the kind of new kid who'd been there since the beginning of the year, no, she had to be the one that showed up after everyone had gotten used to each other. She had barely been at the school an hour and someone came up from behind her and shoved the back of her head. Another guy later came up and slapped her ass and then disappeared before she could figure out who it was. She was snickered at by some prissy-looking girls in Chemistry class, and by lunch she thought shit could absolutely not get any worse. Needless to say she was wrong, but I believe that the reader already expected this. Not to fear, though: there is a small light at the end of this tunnel. She just had to figure out where to sit.
Catherine had her lunch, which consisted of a boat of fries, pretzel bites, and a strawberry slushee, and made her way around the cafeteria as unassumingly as possible. She found it quite ironic that there hadn't been too many sandwich selections, though the more she thought about it, the more it made sense. No one at the school seemed to see the humor in the situation.
But Catherine had a more pressing issue: who would she sit with? Every table looked as if it had its own clique, like she would be shunned out of existence if she even glanced in their direction or thought about joining them. Catherine assessed her options: there were the jocks and the pretty blondes, and the kids playing D&D towards the back of the cafeteria. There was the group clad in plaid who looked as if they listened to a lot of grunge, and though she liked grunge music, she stopped considering when she caught a snippet of their conversation. They seemed to be referring to her as the "weirdo with the beanie" so she turned on her heels and headed in the opposite direction.
It was that day that she made the decision that would cement her place in the food chain of SHS. She saw two boys—two seniors, like herself—sitting by themselves in the corner of the cafeteria. It was her only option; Catherine sucked in a deep breath and made her way towards the table. The two talked amongst themselves until they seemed to see her approach, in which both of their gazes locked on her. They didn't say a word, and when she reached the table she spent a good five seconds just standing there, at a loss for words.
"Uh," Catherine started, realizing that she should probably say something. "Can I sit here?"
It took a moment for her words to register with them. The one with the curly dirty blond hair spoke first.
"Yeah, sure." He gestured to the chair across from himself; the one she was standing behind. Relieved, she placed her tray to the table and pulled the seat back. She had not planned to sit and make friends with those two; no, she just thought they could tolerate each other for the lunch hour and become casual acquaintances, but that is not how the course of events will go. As she stirred her spoon around in her slushee (the ice was always too thick to sip it through a straw) the same boy—the one with the curly, dirty blond hair that met the nape of his neck—started talking to her.
"You new here?" he'd asked.
Catherine looked up from her slushee. "Yeah," she answered.
"What's your name?" he asked.
She stirred the slushee around some more. "Catherine." She had never really liked her name, and the nicknames nearly everyone she'd ever known had tried giving her never stuck. No amount of Cats, Kits, Kittys, Cathys, Cates, or any other suggestions anyone could give would seem to satisfy her. She had, as she would say, "a shitty old-lady name" and she would have to stick with it.
"Oh, well I'm Bennett Pasternak, and this is Dave Dubois." He gestured to the boy next to him, who had dark brown hair that looked as if it was a bit longer on the top than it was on the sides; typical, as it was spiked in sort of a flip-front style. "Nice to meet you, Catherine."
"Where'd you come here from?" Dave had asked. His voice had a bit of a twang to it, as if he'd grown up in the country before settling down in Massachusetts.
"Iowa," she answered, nodding a bit, "so, basically, the middle of nowhere."
That had gotten them both to smile a bit. "Well, I'm from here," Bennett said. "So at least you've actually been out of this shithole."
Seconds after he'd said it, in the corner of her eye, Catherine saw a styrofoam cup come flying through the air and towards their table. She only had a second to register what was happening before it crashed onto the table, splattering brown, discolored liquid across the tabletop. It managed to hit the edge of Catherine's tray and some of her fries, and even though she had seen it briefly coming towards them she still jumped when it made impact. The pungent smell was achingly familiar to her, bringing back unwanted memories from a distant, broken childhood she'd once known. Even though she knew the answer, she heard herself say in a deadpan manner,
"What the fuck is that."
Bennett and Dave appeared completely unfazed; they simply stared at the liquid staining the table, and each gave a brief sigh.
"That, my friend," Dave said, "is tobacco spit."
"Don't worry," Bennett had said when he saw Catherine's shocked expression. "You'll get used to it. It happens all the time."
The rest of lunch consisted of Catherine shoving pretzel bites into her mouth and spooning as much of her slushee into her mouth before the bell rang, in which she sucked the rest of the flavoring down with a straw. When the bell did ring, all three of them stood up and gathered their trash onto their trays. Catherine had laid some napkins out over the tobacco spit, but there wasn't a good way for her to clean it up completely. She picked up her tray and turned to throw out her trash, but upon doing so, nearly collided with Bennett. Her first thought: ho-ly fuck.
Bennett towered over my Catherine at least a foot, and she had to look up to meet his gaze. Catherine did not consider herself a short person—she was fairly average for a teenaged girl who was almost eighteen; she was an inch or two over five feet, not necessarily short, but Bennett Pasternak? Bennett Pasternak was tall.
"Oh, sorry," he said, sidestepping before placing a hand to her shoulder. He wore black fingerless gloves that one would expect from someone who did BMX racing. His hand slid from Catherine's shoulder and he and Dave were on their way. She had two new acquaintances with whom she'd spend her lunch hour with. So, tobacco spit aside, Catherine thought, lunch wasn't that much of a downfall. Though the reader can probably guess that these two boys ended up being more than just acquaintances of hers. Take from that what you will.
Catherine had free period after lunch, and lo and behold, so did Bennett. Dave wasn't there so Bennett was hanging around by himself, leaning against the wall, as if surveying those around him. Catherine had gravitated towards him because he was the only one who'd been remotely friendly to her all day.
"Hey," she greeted, drawing the word out a bit.
"Oh, hey," he said, his eyes darting over to her. "You have free period now?"
"Yeah," she answered, nodding. "Don't mind me, you're kind of the only friendly person I know, so… just gonna… hang here." Catherine leaned against the wall and kicked her foot back to casually rest against the wall, her hands shoved in the pockets of her jeans.
He laughed at that. It was a good start—making people laugh with her social incompetency was something she took pride in. There was a pair of headphones dangling around Bennett's neck, which he grabbed and removed before fishing a cassette player out of his coat pocket.
"You like techno?" he asked, and it took Catherine a moment to realize he was trying to have a conversation.
"I'm down with techno," she had answered, and then he thrust the headphones in her direction. She took the headphones and slipped them over her ears. They almost immediately fell down to her neck; her head was a bit small, at least compared to his. She grabbed the headphones and had to hold them up to her ears, and when she glanced over at Bennett he hit play and music started blaring from the headphones.
"Can you hear that?"
Catherine couldn't hear him but he started laughing again, which she took as a good sign. The track that played was about nine-and-a-half minutes long; it had been called Halcyon On and On. She had never heard it prior to Bennett showing it to her. It sounded like something that she would listen to on repeat if she was trying to do homework or fall asleep at night. When the track had finished she handed back the headphones with a grin on her face.
"What'd you think?" he asked.
"It was great," she answered. "I loved it."
"Do you have any favorite bands?" he asked as he took the headphones back.
Catherine thought for a minute. "Mmm, I don't really have a favorite band. I like pretty much everything. But I listen to a lot of The Beatles, and some Nirvana, and a little bit of 2 Unlimited."
Bennett nodded. "Cool," he'd said.
"Do you know any other good songs?" she'd asked.
Consequently, Catherine spent the remainder of her free period listening the techno songs on Bennett Pasternak's cassette player. She considered it the highlight of her first day at Sandwich High School. The last class of the day was Creative Writing, which Catherine also had with Bennett and Dave. There weren't that many people in the class; ten, at the most, so it didn't come as a shock that they had all been placed in the same class. At the end of the day she realized that those two might end up being more than her casual acquaintances.
Catherine figured she would be able to return the favor with bringing in some of her own cassette tapes. She'd made them up so that they'd play the songs her father had shown her when she was young—the ones that she liked the best. She slid the tapes into the pockets of her backpack and made sure to grab her cassette player before she left the house. Hers had looked different than Bennett's; she'd stuck stickers all over it to decorate it, and to claim it as her own in case anyone tried to steal it. After all, who'd want a cassette player with a bunch of stickers all over it? She couldn't think of anyone besides herself.
The second day was a varied repeat of the first, only that time someone yanked the beanie from Catherine's head and held it above her as she tried to grab it. Then, a hand with fingerless gloves ripped the beanie from the hand of the jock and placed it in Catherine's. Bennett Pasternak was towering over the jock, who gave him an evil glare and called him a Jew before turning away from us and heading back to his pack of athletes. It was only her second day and yet it became painfully obvious that bullying ran rampant at SHS.
"Thanks," she'd said as she pulled the beanie back over her head. Bennett nodded his head and continued on his way.
Catherine's objective during the time she spent at SHS was to get through as inconspicuously as possible. If she could get through without being bothered by others, that would be a success. If she happened to make a friend or two along the way, great. It would immediately go better than she had expected it to. But she had no intention of befriending anyone; at least not beyond the point of a loose acquaintanceship or beyond the point of looking at them and thinking, "I can tolerate this person". Though of course—the reader should be able to pick up on this pattern—things did not go according to plan. Catherine realized that the minute she brought her cassette player to school.
Catherine survived through her classes until lunch came, and she bought the only food that looked appetizing, plus another slushee. She had to admit the slushees were alright, even though a lot of the food looked utterly unappetizing.
Both Bennett and Dave looked up when she set her tray down across the table from them.
"She returns," Dave said, a slight grin forming on his face. "It's official. She's been branded."
The statement had little context, but Catherine assumed that she had now been associated with them and therefore, could not be unassociated with them. After she had been "branded" Dave started showing some of his personality; unlike the day before where he had sat quietly, only making the passing comment to Bennett. That day he seemed to address his conversation to the both of them, starting off with Catherine.
"You wanna hear a joke?" Dave had asked, seemingly directing the question at Catherine.
"Uh, yeah, sure," she said before spooning some slushee into her mouth.
"What's worse than a worm in your apple?" Dave's line was almost immediately followed by Bennett putting his head in his hands, giving a quiet 'oh god, no'. Catherine took it that he'd heard this one before.
The line stumped her. What could be inside an apple that was worse than a worm? "I don't know. What's worse than a worm in your apple?"
Dave gave Catherine an ornery grin. "The Holocaust."
Her eyes widened at Dave in disbelief as the joke sank in. Before she knew it she was laughing, and she looked at him and said, "Oh my fucking God."
"Get it?" Dave asked, still smiling wide. "'Cause the Holocaust is worse than a worm in your apple."
"Yeah, yeah, I get it," she said, running my hand over the top of her beanie. "Oh, Jesus. That was dark."
"They get worse," Bennett assured. "They're either really dark or an excruciating pun. You should hear his Jewish ones."
"Oh God," she'd said, looking into her slushee.
"You've survived the first joke," Dave said, sounding impressed. "Yeah, I think you can sit here. Well, welcome to Sandwich High School. Hope you… loaf it here."
"Dave, I swear to fucking God," Bennett said with his fingers pressed up against his eyes. Though Bennett seemed both embarrassed and disappointed by Dave's pun, Catherine had actually laughed at that one. Bennett looked over at her, appearing apologetic and remorseful. "I hope you don't mind hearing those all the time."
"Wait, wait, I got another one," Dave said. "How many cops does it take to change a lightbulb?"
"Oh, God," Catherine said, covering her eyes with her hands. "I don't know. How many?"
"They don't. They arrest the bulb for being broke and beat the room for being black." Dave broke into a fit of laughter after seeing the expression on Catherine's face change from neutral to horrified.
"Oh my God! Too real. Too real."
That was how the rest of lunch went, with Bennett interjecting when Dave veered towards the Jewish jokes. When the lunch bell rang it left Catherine and Bennett in their free period. After lunch she'd nearly forgotten she'd brought her cassette tapes, but when she lifted her backpack she could hear the plastic cases clacking together and remembered that she'd wanted to show them to Bennett.
"You brought some tapes?" Bennett asked when he heard the cassettes rattling around in her backpack.
"Well, yeah," she'd said. "You showed me some of your music. I wanted to show you some of mine."
She sat and watched Bennett trying to adjust her headphones to fit over his head and she started up the music for him.
"I can't hear anything," he said.
Catherine cranked the volume up until she could hear it coming from the headphones. "Better?" she asked, a little loud.
"Yep!" His voice boomed compared to hers. Her first thought was that he must be deaf if he was listening to his music that loud; no wonder the volume on his cassette player nearly made Catherine's brain shake in her skull.
This became a pattern. The foundation of her friendship with Bennett Pasternak was formed on cassette tapes, self-deprecating jokes, and the fact that every once in awhile a cup of tobacco spit would be thrown their way. Among other things that were thrown their way, of course. It wasn't always tobacco spit, unfortunately for them. This may not sound like the best recipe for a friendship, but the reader will have to trust me on this one.
One day in Creative Writing, a folded up piece of paper was flicked onto Catherine's desk. Their teacher, Ms. Aborigine, was often sitting at her desk with her nose in a book while the students worked on their assignments, so she hadn't noticed the note. Catherine glanced up, and she saw Dave a few seats away grinning. He nodded his head, mouthing the words 'go on'. Her eyes darted back to the paper and she started unfolding it. Drawn quite hastily in pencil was a five-panel comic, the dialogue written in atrocious handwriting. She spent a minute or so decoding it, all while Dave was watching for her reaction. It went a little something like this:
Panel 1: A father is pictured speaking to his young son. "... and under no circumstances should you ever hit a woman," the father says.
Panel 2: The son, now a teenager, is making out with a girl in his bedroom
Panel 3: The girl bends over. "Spank me, Kenny," she says.
Panel 4: "No," Kenny says.
Panel 5: The girl removes her mask, revealing she was the boy's father the entire time. "I'm proud of you, son," the father says.
The comic's ending was so strange, so inappropriate, and so unexpected that Catherine started laughing hysterically. Ms. Aborigine immediately looked up from her book, confiscated the comic, and once she realized it was Dave's (most likely because of the handwriting), kicked the both of them out of class.
For the first minute or so they only sat against the lockers, and every time they'd glance at each other they'd start cracking up over the comic. Dave looked at his watch after they'd been out of the classroom for five minutes, and then stood up.
"Well, we've got twenty minutes left, and I'm not gonna sit here for another twenty minutes."
"What?" Catherine asked.
"I'm gonna leave."
She blinked, processing what he'd said. "Are you like, actually gonna leave the school or are you just gonna walk around… ?"
Dave shrugged. "I'll probably just hang in the parking lot, cause I'm Bennett's ride. You wanna come with?"
She thought for approximately two seconds before saying, "A'ight." She pushed herself off the floor and followed Dave down the hall.
"Bennett didn't really appreciate my comic," Dave said, and then snickered a bit with laughter.
"Oh, God," she said. "How the hell do you even think of that shit, man?"
Dave shrugged. "I've got a twisted sense of humor."
"I can see that."
Dave and Catherine made their way through the school, unseen by any administrators, and exited the building out into the parking lot. It was startlingly easy; it made Catherine wonder if this was the sort of thing that Dave did often. Upon exiting the school, Dave stopped walking and immediately fished a pack of cigarettes from one jacket pocket and a lighter from the other. He placed the cigarette between his lips and flicked the lighter until a flame appeared. It was already getting cold and fall had barely kicked in; Catherine's first taste of weather in New England was looking just as bad as it had been in the Midwest.
Dave looked over his shoulder, blowing cigarette smoke from his lungs, and nodded his head in the direction he wanted her to follow him. It may seem slightly alarming to the reader that Catherine was blindly following a boy she barely knew to his car in the parking lot—the only true answer I can give you is that Catherine had been through enough shit at that point in her life that Dave Dubois whipping out a knife he'd somehow concealed and stabbing her in the stomach would be doing her a favor. The events that occurred in Catherine's life were not the greatest, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Dave and Catherine approached a car that looked like it was a decade old; some of the paint had rubbed off and she could only guess how many miles it had seen. She didn't know what kind of car it was; anyway, it wasn't like she cared. It was gray but the spaces where the paint had rubbed off were darker shades.
Dave sat down on the hood of his car, cigarette still between his teeth, and patted the space next to him, inviting Catherine to sit down. Catherine hopped up onto the hood of the car and slid into the space next to him. The smoke from his cigarette veered towards her, and made her cough as she readjusted the beanie on top of her head.
"You smoke?" he asked, talking around the cigarette in his mouth.
"Not much," Catherine said. "Makes my clothes smell."
Regardless of the comment, Dave tapped a cigarette out of the carton and offered it to her. She took it and placed it between her teeth while Dave fished out his lighter. Catherine took a good look at Dave while he did this; his hair was pretty dark—apart from his frosted tips—and slightly longer on the top where it was gelled and spiked. He had a tall nose that turned up the slightest bit, his eyebrows were practically flat, and his face ended in a slightly rounded point at his chin. Catherine had a habit of noticing things about people, so it wasn't surprising that when Dave turned to face her that she saw that his left eye was dark brown and his right eye was startlingly blue.
"Whoa," she'd said, drawing back a bit as he offered a light. "Your eyes."
"Heterochromia," he answered, putting the lighter to the cigarette, as if he'd expected her to mention it. "It looks cool, but it's fucking annoying."
Catherine sucked the toxins of the cigarette into her lungs and breathed them back out before she spoke again. "Why are you and Bennett being so nice to me? I mean, I barely know you guys and here I am sitting on the hood of your car smoking with you. Bennett showed me some of his cassette tapes and I haven't even known him for a full month."
Dave nodded as if he understood, blowing out another mouthful of smoke. "I see where you're coming from. But you've been here a month, and by now you've had to notice the way this school is. Everyone hangs around his or her designated group. Their 'clique'." He put air quotes around the word when he said it. "People here tend to associate with their group, their people, and resent the others. Like the jocks, or the kids who are into grunge. You name it. The school is one big, complicated food chain. Each group wants to assert their dominance over the others, hence the reason why most of us are getting shoved around. Why cups of tobacco spit get thrown at lunch tables."
Catherine's eyes darted over to him when he said this, but she didn't interrupt.
"Your first day here, you sat at our lunch table. Right? People wouldn't let you sit with them. You were already branded, destined to be with me and Bennett, and maybe some other kids in some different lunch shift—the outcasts. It's not too often that we get thrown a new kid. Gives you someone else to talk to besides the one you're branded with, you know?"
"So… you're nice to me because I'm new to the school?" She asked, having paid attention to his spiel but not having come away with a definite conclusion.
Dave huffed, as if the comment amused him. "I'm nice to you because I like you. You like my jokes; you think they're funny. And you came back to me and Bennett after a cup of tobacco spit got thrown at you on your very first day. Hell, had it been me, I would've taken my lunch and ate under the stairs. It takes someone who's been through a lot of shit to do that. Not to mention—you're nice. You laugh at my twisted jokes even though I'm definitely going to hell for telling them, and you let Bennett show you his shitty music and what do you do? You bring some of your music to show him! Who does that kind of stuff?" He looked over at Catherine but she looked away; she wasn't sure whether or not he was trying to compliment her.
"And look at you now!" Dave continued, gesturing towards her with the cigarette in his hand. "You get kicked out of class for laughing at my comic, you're not even mad about it, and then you blindly follow me out to the parking lot and smoke with me even though you hate the way it smells. Nobody at this school is that nice." Dave brought the cigarette back to his lips, drawing in a deep breath. "It's pretty cool. Bennett doesn't like my jokes and I think his music is kind of shit, so it's good to have someone around who appreciates that kind of stuff."
The bell sounded off from the school, signaling that everyone would soon be pouring out and coming to their cars. Dave tapped the ash off the end of his cigarette, and rubbed his blue eye with the heel of his palm.
"Anyway, I've been talking too long. You need a ride home or something?" Dave looked over at Catherine, awaiting her answer.
"Um, yeah," she said, realizing that she hadn't been smoking the cigarette nearly the entire time he was talking. "Yeah, I could use a ride home. Thanks."
"We'll have to wait for Bennett," Dave said, dropping his stub of a cigarette on the pavement. "He should be getting here any minute now."
Dave and Catherine watched the students file out of the school, and then they saw Bennett amongst the crowd, a head higher than most of the freshman who surrounded him. When he was close enough he spotted Dave and Catherine hanging out on the hood of Dave's car and smirked at them.
"There's Benny-boy," Dave greeted with an ornery grin on his face.
"You guys talking about me?" Bennett asked as he approached the car, and Catherine dropped her cigarette on the pavement and crunched it underneath her high tops. Bennett let the strap of his backpack drop from his shoulder, and when Dave unlocked the car, Bennett opened the door and flung it in the back.
"We're giving Catherine a ride," Dave said as he slid off the hood. "Hey, man, where do you live?"
"Shady Oak Lane," Catherine answered, and both Dave and Bennett stopped dead in their tracks to look at her with astonished expressions.
"You live there?" Bennett asked in disbelief.
"How are you not dead?" Dave asked.
Every town has the quote, "bad" part. Shady Oak Lane did not have the highest of reputations in Sandwich; even the name of the street was something to be suspicious of. It was where Catherine's uncle Joe lived. Her uncle Joe was who she was staying with at the time, though he never seemed quite happy to have her. She took the spare bedroom with a futon and a dirty window looking out to the back yard, and that was where she spent most of her time when she was in the house. Spending time around Uncle Joe was not something Catherine enjoyed; most of the time he reeked of marijuana and was stoned out of his mind, but the other times he was crashing on the couch in his pigsty of a living room. There were usually several bags of chips in the pantry, which Catherine would happily claim for herself and bring them into her room, but that seemed to be the only upside. Sure, Uncle Joe didn't really care where she was or what she was doing, but that could pose as a bad thing if she ever got hit by a car or kidnapped. It would take him a week to realize she was gone.
Bennett and Dave were still looking at her when she shrugged her shoulders; her response to Dave's comment about her not being dead. She didn't know—she wasn't even sure if people in the neighborhood knew she existed, despite walking to the bus stop and coming home every day. They knew Joe didn't have children, so what would some girl be doing living in his house? Catherine's uncle was not necessarily a likeable person—that she knew from personal experience. He had a good amount of money from selling drugs, but stoners didn't like him cause generally, the guy was, in Catherine's words, "an ass". She knew this quite well, even after living with him for only a short amount of time.
Bennett took the front seat in Dave's car, and Catherine was ushered into the back along with Bennett's backpack. It wasn't like she cared; she could just as easily say 'left' or 'right' or point in whichever direction she pleased from the back of the car. Bennett and Dave bickered from the front of the car about how they were gonna exit the parking lot, and Catherine sat back silently, her eyes darting between them like she was watching a ping pong match.
Shady Oak Lane was on the way to Bennett's house, so she'd be the first to get out of the car. She almost felt guilty for living there; she didn't want to put anyone in danger just for them to give her a ride home. You could tell when you drove through Sandwich when you were getting near Shady Oak Lane, because the houses gradually began to look more and more run-down until—BAM! You were in Shady Oak Lane and everything around you was falling apart and your life was in pieces. Or at least that's how it seemed when Catherine arrived there.
Catherine had to direct Dave through the streets in order for him to find Joe's house; arguably, it wasn't in the worst part of the neighborhood, but it was probably the worst-looking house. Dave's car slowed to a stop in front of Joe's yellowing lawn, and Catherine could tell by the look on both Bennett and Dave's faces that neither was necessarily impressed by the place she lived.
The front of the yard was guarded by large bushes, so the only glimpse of the house Bennett and Dave got was from their space in front of the long tar driveway. The house was a raised ranch with rotten wood siding, and a beat-up, faded red truck resting in the driveway. The shingles on the roof had become bleached from years in the sun, and the red trim around the roof was chipping. All around, it looked unkempt, as if whoever was living there didn't care too much about appearances.
"This is it?" Dave asked as she grabbed hold of her bag and started to open the car door.
"Yep," she answered with a slight sigh. "Thanks for the ride, Dave. I'll bring you some gas money tomorrow."
"Alright, man," Dave said, though didn't drive off. She watched, waiting for them to leave, but when he didn't move the car she cautiously stepped towards the house. He was waiting for her to go inside. Catherine turned away from the car and headed towards the house; the car didn't drive off until she was safely inside with her pot-smoking uncle.