Toby set his tray onto the empty cafeteria table and, eyes down, slid onto the bench. Joel and his friends at the table ahead didn’t notice him. Except to make him the butt of their stupid jokes, they never noticed him. They were the reason Toby had hated every minute of middle school.
He didn’t get what made them cool – or what made him the guy everyone ignored. And so he watched. It wasn’t stalking, Toby told himself – he was just trying to figure out what made them tick, what made them so different from him. They hardly knew he existed except as “Screech” the kid they had scared into screaming three years ago, back in fifth grade. The nickname had stuck and Toby had long since given up protesting. Unaware of its humiliating origin, even some of his teachers used it.
A light fist butted his shoulder. “Hey bro!” Dennis Cho leaned over. “Need a ride to the game tonight? My dad is driving.”
Toby shrugged. “I don’t know…I haven’t decided whether to go.” His eyes fell on the broad backs of the boys at the next table. Dennis’s gaze followed.
“The Panthers are monsters. We can watch our guys get crushed.” They both grinned. “Send me a text, Screech, if you need a lift.”
Dennis hurried away to settle himself at his own lively table of friends. Taking a bite out of his pizza, Toby hunched over, listening.
“…I told my dad we need a dog instead. Zoe forgets the password on the security system so much the company doesn’t want to respond any more. And a dog would be so awesome…”
Toby’s eyes strayed over to Joel’s twin sister, Zoe. Just like her brother, kids collected around her. Except she was kind of nice. Definitely hot. So out of his league. Toby shrugged his shoulders as if he could shake off this mantle of nothingness. But the invisibility cloak stayed securely fastened.
The boys’ conversations drifted over to the high school football team they all hoped to be picked for, and finally Toby stopped listening. Once again, his stomach ached, less from the bad pizza but more from the bitterness of being nobody and nothing. He zombied through his afternoon classes, bringing the science teacher’s irritation down on him for forgetting his homework. At least she noticed. His LA teacher never caught on that he’d handed in last term’s essay again with just a couple of names changed. Same C-.
The only interesting event was a new student in math. Lee’s dark eyes swept the room while he was being introduced, stopping thoughtfully on Toby for an instant before moving on. When class was over and the students were flowing like salmon into the hallways, Lee walked beside him.
“Show me around?” he asked.
Toby shrugged. “Some of the other kids are more into things.”
Lee’s smile lit up his face. “But it’s you I’m interested in.”
“Hey,” Dennis’ voice broke in. “My dad’s car’s got room for two more if you and your new bro want to go to the game.”
They went and Toby was more than surprised that he had fun. Lee seemed to bring some kind of magic to the mix, lazily making them cool and somehow keeping everyone but Toby at arms length. The only glitch came when Mr. Cho gave Lee a sharp reprimand for a rude comment. Lee’s face got like marble for an instant, but then he smiled and apologized. The easy laughing and joking started again.
“That’s one weird guy,” Dennis told Toby the next day on the bus. “Dark, y’know.”
Toby couldn’t see it. For once he was in and special and for the first time since he walked in the door at middle school, he didn’t feel invisible.
He stopped eavesdropping on Joel and Zoe’s conversations except for when Lee inexplicably zeroed in on someone else and left him hanging. But just when Toby reached a fret of anxiety, Lee would swerve back into his life, laughing, tantalizing, making him feel special. Dennis clearly didn’t like Lee and didn’t want him around. Toby barely noticed that Dennis didn’t talk to him anymore.
One Friday night, Toby had Lee over. They’d watched some heavily R-rated movies that Lee had brought and zapped snacks in the microwave. Toby was trying to clear out the images he’d seen, not act like he’d never known that…. He swallowed and looked desperately at Lee. The guy was lounging on the old sofa, dark eyes fixed on Toby, fingers drumming on the arm.
A sure sign that he was bored.
Toby swallowed again and wracked his brain for an idea of something that would entertain his buddy. Lee was getting that irritated look that meant he would find someone more interesting to hang out with, but then he suddenly smiled slowly, eyes narrowing as he stared at Toby.
Toby shifted nervously. “Want more pizza?”
Toby waited; his hands were sweating and he didn’t know why. He shifted in his chair.
“Want to play a game?” Lee asked at last.
“Sure. Yeah,” Toby said too quickly. “Monopoly…um…poker?”
“Better. Truth or dare.”
“That’s a kid’s game.”
“Not the way I play it.” Lee’s smile was chilling somehow. Toby swallowed again, and tried to sit in the chair like he was too cool to be worried. But his hands were sweating even more. “You go first,” Lee invited.
“Um…truth or dare?”
“Truth.” There was a stillness about Lee that somehow scared Toby. He was being dumb, he mentally scolded himself. Acting like Screech again.
“Okay…um…why did you move here?” Lame. Toby was glad the room was half dark and Lee wouldn’t be able to see the embarrassment flushing his face.
There was only a moment’s hesitation. “My dad got sent to prison. My mom wanted to be where no one knew us. I didn’t care,” Lee’s voice was flat, intense. “I wanted to move close to the jail, but no, she wanted to act like he didn’t exist.”
Toby didn’t know what to say. Just sat there, frozen. “Cool,” he managed finally, knowing it was the dumbest thing in the world to say.
“Yeah. Right.” Lee paused. “Truth or dare?”
“Who do you hate most in the world?”
“Easy. Joel Brast.” Just thinking about him made Toby clench his fists.
Lee laughed. “Your turn. Looks like I need a dare.”
Toby stared. What kind of dare could he come up with that was cool?
“I don’t know…”
“Ding. Ding. Time’s up. My turn.”
“Wait! That’s not fair.”
“That’s not fair,” Lee mimicked. “You going to play or not…Screech.”
Toby scowled, suddenly feeling tears pricking behind his eyes. So glad the room was half dark.
“Here’s your dare, then. Sneak into Joel’s house and steal something.”
“What? Are you crazy?”
“Are you chicken…Screech?” Lee waited a minute, then abruptly stood up. “You’re a loser. I’m out of here.”
“No wait…I was just thinking how to do it….” If Lee left he’d be invisible again. Be nothing.
Lee sank down into the chair and grinned. “His family has gone away for the weekend. Zoe told me they’re going to their cabin.”
Toby felt a sick flood of jealousy that Zoe had been talking to Lee. She didn’t even say hi to him anymore and they’d known each other since kindergarten. He’d show them!
And then, almost without thought, as if time had squeezed and rolled, he was standing in front of the Brast house with Lee hidden beneath the trees. Toby wiped his hands on his jeans and stared at the silent house looming before him. Lights on an automatic timer blinked off throughout the rooms.
“What are you waiting for?” Lee demanded.
“I…I’ve got to figure out the best way in,” Toby stammered. “They have a security system.” But the company won’t come, he thought desperately. It’ll be fine.
His knees felt weak like he’d just gotten off a roller coaster, but he forced himself to slink through the shadows and into the back yard.
Score! A window at the back was a bit ajar.
Toby took a deep breath, snapped off the screen, and forced the window all the way open. He was breathing hard, like he’d been running, but he didn’t even turn to look at Lee who was watching from the shadows behind him.
With a grunt, Toby boosted himself up and half fell into the room. He lay on the floor, waiting for the sound of an alarm. Nothing.
Almost sobbing, Toby got to his feet and looked around. The dark made it hard to see where he was, but it looked like a home office of some kind. A laptop sat on a desk. When Toby flipped it open, the sudden light showed a thumb drive in the side of the machine. If he took the computer, that was a big theft. Something that would get the police involved. But a flash drive was worth about five dollars. He grabbed that and dove for the window.
He had done it!
But when he looked around, Lee was gone. In the distance, the blue lights of a police car strobed over trees and buildings. With a smothered cry, Toby leaped over the fence and ran home.
For a long time he sat on his bed clutching his knees. Trying to breathe. When no knock came on the door, he opened his own window and threw the thumb drive as far as he could. He heard it bounce and click on the roadway, and watched the cars rolling by. Then he went to bed.
On Monday, Joel and Zoe were full of the robbery. Toby felt ill, hearing them talk. It was only a thumb drive. But apparently it was a thumb drive holding plans for some big deal at their Dad’s company.
Miserable, Toby sat behind them at the cafeteria.
“No one should have know about it,” Joel said a bit too loudly. “Except Dad says the security was compromised. That maybe someone was bribed.” He looked over at Dennis Cho. “Cho’s old man handles the company security. He knew.”
Toby wanted to shout that No! It’s not them. But he was terrified of the questions that would come. Besides…it wasn’t like anything really had happened. He left the cafeteria and walked, head down to his next class.
Lee was waiting outside when the day ended.
“Hey, Toby,” he said. His eyes gleamed. “I have a couple of postcards I want to show you. Actually they’re copies of postcards. I’m going to send one but I want you to pick which card.”
“What are you talking about?” Toby felt the hairs prickling on the back of his neck. Suddenly he was sick of Lee and his dumb games. But the intensity of Lee’s expression made him look down at the cards. They were addressed to the police and the message was printed in big block letters.
I BROKE IN AND TOOK THE THUMB DRIVE – TOO BAD FOR THE STUPID BRAST FAMILY! – TOBY MALIK
DENNIS CHO BRAGGED AT SCHOOL ABOUT THE BIG PAYOFF HIS DAD JUST GOT – A CONCERNED CITIZEN.
“I need your advice on this one, Toby. So which postcard do I send?” Lee’s face was a mask of curious interest.
Toby felt as if the walls were spinning; he was gasping like he was running. “You…you can’t. It was a joke….”
Lee smiled. “Yeah, and I think this is way too funny. Which one, Screech?”
Toby stared. A monster. Lee was some kind of monster.
“So, I’ll mail your confession. What do you think it’ll get you? Juvvie? Suspension for sure.” Lee was laughing, that dark laugh that made him seem so cool. He turned to walk away.
“No…wait,” Toby was trying to breathe, trying not to cry. “The other one. Send the other one….”
“Anything for a bro.” Lee gave a mock salute and sauntered away.
Tony went to the bathroom and threw up.
All week, Toby watched Dennis, wondering if anything was happening. He avoided Lee, who in turn watched him with that terrifying smile. Toby hated him now, fantasized that Lee was hit by a car, or lightning…or somehow was caught and thrown into jail with this father.
But maybe it all was a joke. Maybe Lee never sent the postcard. After all, it had been a harmless prank – a way to show Joel and his friends that he, Toby, mattered. That he wasn’t the coward, Screech…and besides it was just a stupid thumb drive. It wasn’t like he was going to sell the stupid information. The company had to have lots of other copies.
It was all a dumb joke on Lee’s part. He hated the guy – hated him. But the whole thing was a stupid mistake.
It wasn’t his fault, Toby told himself again. Dennis’ dad would explain. Nothing would happen to his friend’s family. It was all okay….
When Toby walked into school on Friday, there was a shift in the air. Kids were huddled in groups in the hall. No one was fooling around. A few of the teachers were talking earnestly, standing close together the way they did when they didn’t want any kids to hear.
Toby went to his locker, ears straining to hear what had happened. His breath was coming in short little gasps.
Zoe was opening her locker, two down from his, and for once she wasn’t surrounded by a gaggle of giggling friends.
“Say, what’s going on?” Toby tried to make his voice casual.
“You mean you haven’t heard?” Zoe demanded. “I thought you would know because Dennis….”
“What about Dennis?” Toby didn’t care that his voice squeaked.
Zoe faced him, face pale, wanting to talk it out. “The police went to arrest his dad, because, you know, the break in at my house?”
Toby felt turned to stone but he nodded. “What about Dennis?”
“When the cops tried to arrest his dad, Dennis fought back…they…they shot him.”
The world reeled. Toby clutched his locker door to prevent himself from falling. “Is he…dead?”
Zoe shook her head. “He’s really hurt bad. Might put him in a wheelchair, maybe. It’s so awful.” Tears were streaming down her face. “I can’t believe all this is happening. It’s my fault…”
“What? Why?” Toby was shocked out of his nausea.
“If I hadn’t messed up the alarm so much, Mr. Cho would never have known how easy it was to steal the plans.” She began sobbing, leaning against the lockers.
Toby turned and walked away.
The day was a useless blur. After math, Lee stopped him in the hallway.
“Hey, Toby, my bro. I’ve got one postcard left. Should I send it?” Lee’s face mocked, dark like a devil’s face. Toby stared until Lee jabbed the card at him.
I BROKE INTO THE BRAST’S HOUSE AND TOOK THE THUMB DRIVE – EVERYTHING IS MY FAULT. I’M SORRY – TOBY MALIK
“Truth or consequences?” Lee’s face was pushed close to Toby’s. His breath, sickly sweet bathed his face. “Should I send it or not. Your choice, Toby.”
“Truth? Consequences?” Lee’s voice was low and warm. “It’s all your choice.”
Toby simply stood, looking at the mocking devil, seeing ahead to the days and then years stretching before him. Truth or consequences?
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Not Yet Summer