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“Hey, Germ, nice jacket,” you sneer. “Come here.”
Jeremy Warden stares at his feet for a minute, like he is actually considering ignoring you. This immediately p***** you off. You dislike freshmen in general, but Jeremy just shot to the top of your hit list. Who does this nerd think he is, blowing you off like this?
“Get over here. Now.”
Your tone says it all. Germy Jeremy looks around hesitantly, hoping for someone to save him, but nobody comes. Head lowered, he scuttles toward you. You grab the front of his jacket. “Take it off.”
He takes the jacket off. You snatch it out of his arms. It’s old leather with that brown fluff on the collar. A bomber jacket, looks like. Really cool. Too cool for this nerd. “Where’d you get this?”
“It was my grandpa’s,” Jeremy mutters. “He was an ace.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“He shot down five enemy fighter jets in the war.”
You’re not much of a history buff, but that sounds pretty cool. You run your hands over the worn leather shoulder pads. You never got s*** from your grandpa. “You gonna shoot down planes in a war?”
Jeremy splutters, stuttering, not knowing how to answer.
“I think I’ll hang on to this,” you say. “It’s a real piece of history. Wouldn’t want it to get messed up. There are some real jerks around. They’ll push you down. Mess up this jacket. I’ll take care of it for you.”
Jeremy looks like he’s ready to cry, blinking hard behind his stupid Clark Kent glasses. He watches you slip your arms into the sleeves. He almost says something, but you stare at him. Your nose is crooked where your dad punched you and broke it five years ago, seventh grade, and it makes you look tough. Nobody can stand it when you glare down your nose at them.
“Thanks,” Jeremy whispers. He grabs his books and leaves, hurrying down the halls to get away. The bell’s already rung. He’ll walk into class late, get a tardy and a tongue-lashing. Maybe he’ll cry. Stupid freshmen. You turn away, rubbing your hands over the cracked leather. You feel like an ace. You feel like you could shoot down five fighter-jets no sweat. Nothing can stop you. You are powerful.
You are tough.
You wear the jacket home. Your dad doesn’t notice. He’s passed out on the couch, beer half-empty and leaving a sweat ring on the wood table. You leave as the phone rings and he startles awake, cussing under his breath as he fumbles for the phone. He shouts at you as your back passes through the screen door, “WHERE ARE YOU GOING!”
You don’t answer. You are going where you always do at ten. The pickup. If the team knew you slept in your truck you’d be the laughingstock of the senior class. Probably somebody would call the services, or something. But they’ll never find out. In two months you’ll be eighteen, and then nobody can make you do s***. You’ll drive away and leave this tiny helltown, leave the teachers who think you won’t amount to anything, that freaking bill collector, the father who broke your nose – and your arm once, and gave you that black eye you told everyone was from a fistfight – and that girl who says she isn’t into basketball players. You’ll leave them all behind.
But in the meantime you will go to school and scare freshmen. Freshmen can’t hit you back. Freshmen can’t make you cry like you were a little kid again, even though you’re almost eighteen. And freshmen can’t fight back.
And you have to be tough somewhere.
Jeremy looks at you as you walk down the hall in his grandpa’s jacket. He looks like he wants to say something. He glances at a teacher – like he wants to pull him over and stop you – but then turns back around to his locker, fumbling with his pile of notebooks.
You smack the back of his head when you walk by. He ducks, but you can tell it hurt. He rubs his head, face still buried in his locker. That girl who says she doesn’t like basketball players sees and frowns, starting to shout something at you, but you glare down your crooked nose and keep walking. She calls you mean, calls you a bully.
You don’t care. You have to be tough somewhere.