PART A (The Psychologist) — 4

A classmate pulled ahead, followed close by Johnston.

The two shot around L-shaped corners, zigging past waves of empty cork boards and brightly colored, crisply cut election posters taped to walls.

The classmate pumped sweatered arms, never quite looking back.

Johnston pressed, but heard his shoes begin to screech against the scummy linoleum floor.

Too loud to go this fast, he thought.

Too much trouble.

Not the right way to behave.

He stopped and caught his breath, alone now in a random stretch of hall.

As he considered heading home, a neatly folded square of lined paper caught his eye from beneath the rear of a bin marked “REFUSE.”

Glancing left then right, he glided in and stooped to clasp the mysterious page by its exposed corner.

He noticed a blue heart drawn in pen with extra curves and spirals.

As he turned the note over to yank its careful folds apart, a gaggle of gleeful females swarmed into the hall, all giggling and honking like the working components of some enormous cartoon machine.

Johnston froze, feeling their judgmental stares as they laughed and bobbed in his general direction.

He glanced halfway up, not quite meeting pairs of menacing eyes . . . then quickly down again.

His point of view was the sliding piece of the Strongman carnival game once its lever has been whacked with a mallet and the slider finds its apex.

He shuddered as he took in partial outlines of further curves and spirals.

An old warmth began to pool in his chest like a shaky jolt, and Johnston bolted, fleeing first straight at the gaggle, then around . . . an uncoordinated asteroid knocked into and out of orbit.

A door marked “MEN” lay just beyond.

Then safe in the usual dank and sterile mix of smells . . . hidden with his feet up in a stall . . . Johnston finished unraveling the paper, fighting to contain a wicked grin.

mark,

im stefani. im gabbys freind. u met me at gabbys house when derek had that party. i long brown hair and big tits. haha. anyway, i wrote this letter because ive been thinking about u. i like the way u talk and ur voice and i just though u were cool so gabby says u would probably go out with me. i want to go out with u. ur hot. haha. i think u liked me 2 because u were looking at me and laughing when i said that about mr hensler. i was so nervous about u but i hope u will think about this. i been thinking about u. a lot. haha. anyway. bfn.

xxx

stef

. . .

It was dark.

The kitchen air had fallen still and musty, probably with age.

Johnston cursed as quietly as possible, almost a whisper and quite matter-of-fact.

His scrubber’s bristles, loose and dull, were matted through with tiny fragments.

Slime from old scorched beans and days’ worth of a crusty film held fast.

He gritted his teeth and scraped all the more beneath pale, lukewarm water.

The chore had to be done, so he let his mind wander in the particular way it had trained itself to, having now well over a decade’s practice.

Stef . . . Stefani…

Perhaps it was just her fun, cute way of spelling Stephanie.

Or maybe Stephany.

Yes, he could picture her now.

And Gabby.

And others, all clustered in a tight circle on the floor of Stefani’s pink and Easter-blue, pony-themed princess room.

He envisioned the troop of pajama-pantsed beauties all laughing and egging each other on as together they penned Mark’s note.

Johnston now knew the note by heart.

He had read and reread it over 50 times, letting his mind run to fill in every missing detail.

Had she given the note to Mark?

Had Mark tried to throw it away and missed?

Did that mean poor Stefani might be alone somewhere even now, perhaps softly crying into her teddy’s side for having been so slighted?

How could Mark have committed such treason?

Johnston would never spurn so exquisite a creature as Stefani.

Of course not.

And he could just see Mark, too . . . the pretty-boy idiot, self-obsessed, immature, carefree and careless.

The dishwater seemed to stink more than usual as Johnston continued to scrape with all his worth, tearing at a few final filthy remnants until at last he saw no traces.

With a smile, he set about drying and putting away.

The odd football yell or hyena shriek from down the hall was nothing new.

Barely even noticeable.

His smile grew as the complete blueprint for a plan seemed to leap all at once to his mind, ordered already in sequential steps.

He would write Stef a note, and leave it near the same place, though more visible out in the hallway.

And what if his note were to actually reach her?

How romantic would their against-all-odds story one day be?

He could just see himself with Stefani reciting their unlikely tale for the nth time to half-ring rows of beloved grandchildren.

But first Johnston would scrimp and save, running that decrepit scrub brush through more sets before retirement.

That way he could take her to the movies and buy her popcorn.

He would treat her the way she needed to be treated . . . the way she deserved . . . like royalty.

She just needs someone to show her how special she is.

Someone to love her.

The noises from Johnston’s older brother’s room became less human and more frequent.

Johnston remained completely still, unaffected.

The dishes were done.

Yes.

Floors were clean.

He lowered himself to brown shag-carpet beside an old cherry-wood desk his father might have used.

He had been told this was the very spot his father’s body was discovered.

It had since become Johnston’s spot, right at the center of the house.

He stared into a blank white page that lay diagonal on the floor before him, and waited for careful designs to become correct words.

Then his gaze shifted, and he stared way past the page (and every fluffy shade beneath) until all blurred to sweet meaningless oblivion.

The expected words came, and he wrote.

Hi Stefani,

How are you? Ok, try not to be mad, but I found your letter to Mark. I thought it was great! I loved what you said and the way you wrote it. My name is Johnston, by the way. Johnston Sayen.

I know this is going to sound strange, but can I meet you? I just mean that, if Mark did not appreciate your letter, maybe you would like to know someone that did?

Maybe your letter never got to him. If that is the case, forget about what I said. You can try to get another letter to him. Or whatever you want to do.

Well, I will leave it at that. Since I found your letter, I have been thinking about you. A lot. Haha. ; ) bfn

xxx

JS

He was happy with his draft, though knew it would undergo scores of tiny tweaks throughout the night.

But first Johnston let himself get lost again, staring far deeper than carpet could go in total stillness and silence.

Time slipped away as it always did, and he became that boy again . . . the one whose older-brother guardian was always off somewhere subdued in distant rooms by all the worst subductions.

He was once more that quiet boy who taught himself to clean from magazines, and who learned to find his own way to each school . . . that boy who met all violence and chaos head-on with the sheer force of a simple belief in a single ideal: that Johnston could be, and do, and become anything he chose if he were just to complete each necessary step.

It was more than a belief, really.

It would always be his way out . . . his line to reach for and return to no matter what.

Johnston certainly wasn’t violent.

Never.

. . .

In morning’s light, Johnston set about perfecting his letter again.

Did he know, deep down, he would never really leave it for Stefani to find?

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