Universe W-2020: Apex MERCs 1
June 21st, 1997
The Highest Mark
‘One day… you will be mine. Even if I have to burn this school to the ground.’
A fat kid named Barry B. Borger comes barreling down the hall, his disproportionate incense stick legs pumping like lubed pistons. Nobody knows how he moves so swiftly, and nobody knows what his voice sounds like, either; he doesn’t even offer the courtesy of a beep-beep when he’s coming towards you, he just gives his 110%, and anybody who gets in his way can get out of their next class to go the nurse’s office. He’s a saint, not a wing short of an angel, and anyone who argues that can buy Barry a burger, but Sean Hymarc’s never been one to argue. He’s never been one to speak out much, especially on days like today when he finds himself pelted to the floor with a boot’s worth of vertebrae displaced in his spine and a new chip in my front tooth.’
The foundation of the building stops shaking, and the hallways return to a more appropriate level of commotion. It’s not calm, there is no serenity in these linoleum floors, nor is there any in the minds of those who walk them. Classes have all been let out, the busses are waiting to pick up the children, and the children are lined up at the main office so they can receive their report cards. It’s been a long school year, and a grueling one at that… well, as grueling as eighth grade can be. And for our young Sean Hymarc, eighth grade is so grueling – he’s your typical outcast, you know the type: sits by himself at lunch, doesn’t talk or pass notes in class, doesn’t meet up in the stairwells to hook up with the girls that never look at him. It’s not necessarily his fault, either. The Hymarcs moved to Brick City in the middle of September and the school year had already started, there wasn’t a thing to be done. So Hymarc smiled and waved until he got through it. And so he did get through it. And so things will be better in high school.
But will they, though?
‘Totally, sport!’ the voice of his father echoes against the inside of his head. ‘Everyone’ll be used to you by then. The first year’s the hardest, but once the pack takes your scent, you’ll be welcomed in.’
Even so, it doesn’t matter. It’s not friends that Sean wants, nor is it acceptance, nor is it women, at least not those of his own age. There’s only one thing out there, one, single thing that tickles Sean’s fancy enough to crack the miserable little scowl he constantly keeps stapled to his face into a smile – the star of the movie poster hanging in the hall. His Jennae.
The report card line moves quickly, there’s no small talk to be had. The principal simply asks for a name, doesn’t even have to be your name, digs through the box of amber envelopes, hands over the package, badda-boom, badda-bing. Most kids don’t even open theirs – in fact, Sean sees a hearty handful of his anonymous peers crumple their packets in their hands like it was nothing, just to drop it in the trash after all that effort. One of the dudes even wipes his ass with his, although it’s done over the seat of his pants. The message would come through clearer if he went all out and delved into his undies with it, Sean’s sure, but that’s not his problem. Those kids all take the bus, they live more than a three minute’s walk from the school. None of them have to walk. None of them know what it’s like, none of them have any idea.
Three minutes later, Sean barges into his parents’ apartment with tears streaming from his eyes. He kicks off his shoes gently, as to not dent the walls, and drags his feet across the tile of the foyer. He hears the TV on in the living room, which means dad’s on the couch, so he bangs a hard right at the wall and diverts his drag through the kitchen – empty. Mom’s on the couch too, then. A cake’s baking in the oven. It smells like lemons and cavities.
He pokes his head around the corner, just to make sure the dining room’s unoccupied. It is. Keeping on his toes like a jewel thief who never learned to walk right, Sean creeps through the archway and ducks behind the couch. The sound of a gunshot accompanied by cheers of a studio audience explodes from the TV. He hears his dad snicker, which rises a sigh of contentment out of his mother. This is his chance – if he dashes now, he might be able to avoid their gaze.
Sean takes three steps before his backpack screws his center of balance and he eats carpet. His chin assumes a light burn.
“Heyyy, there he is!”
‘Fuck. I’m made.’
As he stands up, Sean turns to face his parents with a quiver in his bottom lip and tears in his eyes. “Here I am…”
“How was your day, honey?” Momma Hymarc asks, placing her knitters down on the coffee table.
“They kept calling me cracker again,” he sobs, eyes to the carpet. The carpet that caught him when he fell. The carpet that punished him for messing up. “And when I was walking past the busses, they pushed me down, into the street. They kicked me with their dirty, muddy shoes. One of them put a cigarette out on my forehead.”
The elder Hymarcs look at each other and try to smile, but it’s not an easy task.
From ma, “Well, you look like you got yourself nice an’ cleaned up pretty well.”
Pop puts palms to knees and stands, evoking the dad noise. He approaches young Sean and brushes off his shoulder, then takes him in for a hug. “It’s okay buddy, you’re home now.”
“I don’t wanna go back,” into his dad’s belly.
“What’s that?” asks his mom, but Poppa Hymarc heard loud and clear. He may have a gut, but all that fat? Great for catching vibes.
“Look on the bright side, buddy!” with a pat on his son’s back. “The school year’s over, summer’s here and you have all the time in the world to yourself. You ca–”
“That’s the problem!” Sean shouts. He tries to push his father away, but he just pushes himself, then falls back over. That fucking backpack. “I have all the time to myself! Nobody talks to me, dad, I have no friends, the teachers treat me different, the lunch ladies give me less food than everyone else. I’m awkward and stupid and I can’t bang a beat out on the tabletops because hitting it hurts my knuckles and they all make fun of me for it. I don’t tell good stories, I’m bad at math and science and history, I can’t write rhymes, I can’t dance, I can’t sing, I can’t draw, I’m not athletic. I’m just me, I can’t do anything!”
Sean stomps his foot, then his other, then he rips his backpack off and tries to fling it but, in his rage, Sean couldn’t quite get his arm out of the strap, and it’s tangled pretty good. If it was a rope bridge we were talking about, and Sean’s arm was similarly tangled in the ropes and the flimsy-ass bridge suddenly snapped because, for some reason, some dumbass thought it would be a good idea to lead a parade of anteaters across a rickety archaic wooden rope bridge that done been in a state of disrepair ever since the anteaters were introduced into the area and the gorge had to be crossed in the first place, Sean would be just fine. He wouldn’t be able to climb out of the canyon, but he wouldn’t fall into the river below. Fortunately, he’s only in his living room, and he can easily climb up off the floor.
As Sean breathes heavily with his eyes closed, his dad picks up his backpack for him. His mom equips her knitters and gets back to working on Sean’s new scarf.
“You got your final report card today, right Sean?”
Sean stops breathing, his eyes don’t open. He doesn’t tremble, doesn’t waver, it’s like he’s a statue… or catatonic. He usually can’t keep himself upright when he slips into his zone, but there’s a first time for everything…
Then, “Yes.” His eyes stay closed.
“Did you open it yet, sport?”
Sean doesn’t answer, but the metal clasps reflecting the sunlight poking in from the sliding glass door that leads out to the porch have him covered.
“Do you mind if I open it?”
Momma Hymarc sets her knitters beside her and grabs hold of an embroidered pillow. It reads:
Hold me when you’re happy,
hold me when you’re sad. Hold me tight on every day
and things will not be bad.
The silence is given a second minute to live, then it’s slashed by the ripping of glued paper.
“Why’d they even use the clasps if they were gonna glue it shut anyway?” as pop struggles to wrestle the packet of papers that comes with the report card out of the overstuffed envelope.
“They probably just like the lickin’ the glue,” Momma Hymarc quips from behind her pillow. Her husband snickers softly, then they both look at Sean. He still hasn’t opened his eyes, but he’s balled his hands into white-knuckled fists, so that’s… something.
Letting the papers fly, Poppa Hymarc holds the report card in his hand. It’s folded, as to hide the treasures inside, and it was printed on some sort of thick oaktagish paper, paper with weight. Official paper. Brick City was definitely the right move. The old school was printing field trip forms on pink loose-leaf, like, really?
“Ready for the moment of truth, little man?” asks Poppa Hymarc in a soft voice.
Sean finally opens his eyes and, when the tears clear, he sees his dad is smiling. Not a big scary clownpaint smile but a little one, just a little bend in his lips, no lines in his cheeks. Like he wants to make Sean feel comfortable, as if all this man wants is for his son to be happy.
Well bad news, dad. Sean will never be happy, he’s not capable of it. I’m a waste of life and I know it and everyone else knows it too and no matter what anyone says, I’ll always be a waste of fucking space IfuckinghatemylifeIwanttofuckingdie.’
Sean closes his eyes again, and poppa takes it as a sign to either get crackin’ or carton the eggs back in the fridge.
“Well let’s look us a see here… Language Arts, Aye. Gym class, Aye. Social Studies, Algebra, Health and Safety, Aye, Aye, Aye… aaand Science, Aye…” pause, short exhale, “minus.”
Sean screams at the top of his lungs, then (without the proper permits) adds an addition that makes the attic more of a dorm than a crawlspace, and then screams to the new top of his lungs. He slaps himself in the face, open palm, hard enough to burst the scab on his cheek from last week’s walk in the park when little Seany Hymarc decided to run off the path and caught a bramble to the face. On his way to his bedroom, the terror kicks over a tall table with a small surface that holds a plant ingrained into the loamy soil of a kiln-fired ceramic flower pot that Sean made in art class at his old school, the school that still had art in the curriculum. The pot bounces on the carpet and hardly spills any dirt; Sean kicks the wall in retaliation and then hops on the opposite leg so he can grab his throbbing foot. This spills him backwards into his bedroom, and when his parents are finished with their closed-eye hug and the wetworks are sopped by a sleeve pulled over a hand, they look over to see Sean’s head poking out of his bedroom, watching them.
He slams the door.
“You want me to talk to him?” Momma Hymarc asks, her eyes glossy and pink.
“No love, you handled him last time, and the time before that. I’ll try to get through to him, it’s going to be okay.”
They share a kiss, then he leaves one on her forehead until he gets back. Unless Sean kills him, which he might, considering…
Sean hears a knock on the door. He tells his pillow to come in, though it has a hard time hearing him from inside the soaked case. He feels his mattress depress a bit, then a big hand rubbing his back. Petting him, like a fucking lame dog. ‘No, he’s just showing me compassion. No, stop, he thinks I’m a dirty animal who needs to be treated as such, get fucking real, Sean. You are a terror You are….’
After the back and forth’s done, and once the following bout of internal self-berration for having such a fucked-up brain comes to a conclusion, Sean peels his head from his pillow and looks at the face of his father. A face he’ll never forget. A face he’ll never let himself remember so he can’t forget in the first place.
A daunting moment of unbroken eye contact takes place. Poppa Hymarc can’t remember the last time his son looked him in the eyes for so long.
“Talk to me buddy, what’s up?”
“I’m a fucking failure!”
His mother sniffles, then goes right back to knitting that nice, warm scarf that’ll protect her baby from all the bad juju the world darts into his neck.
“I just told you and mom outside, I’m a fucking failure, dad! A piece of shit, a waste of human seed. Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, and they want to see me eat a bullet, and you know what? I want to eat that bullet! I WANT TO FUCKING DIE!”
When the shards of his heart hit the pit of his stomach, “Sean, please, don’t sa–”
“Don’t say the truth?! Face facts dad, I’m never going anywhere in life. I have zero motivation, zero ambition, no goals. No path to follow. I should never have been born, I don’t know what God was thinking when He made me… probably… He probably just wanted to see how fucking putrid a human could be.” Sean’s voice drops to a whisper, then, “I wish you guys didn’t even have me.”
“And you wish it too! I know you and mom wish it too, deep down inside, so deep that you’ll never admit it no matter what, but I know I make life harder for you. I know how miserable I make you, I know your life would be better without me. You know it, mom knows it, all the kids at school and the teachers and the pedestrians and all the humans living in the entire stupid Brick City know it, I’m a curse to whatever land I walk on, and the day I die, a very black cloud’s going to drift away, and the sun’s finally gonna shine again.”
Sean curls into a ball and shuffles himself into the corner of his bedroom. His bed’s old, a bunkbed that was cut in half when his upcoming little brother realized who his older sibling would be and miscarriaged himself, and the wooden legs poke up at the corners. He feels one such leg digging into his ribcage and notices that, when he takes a deep breath, the pain gets worse.
His breaths steadily get deeper.
Poppa Hymarc’s eyes fall to his knees, then his crossed wrists when he leans forward, then the floor when he starts to think. The man takes in a long breath and puffs out his cheeks, slowly releasing it through loosely puckered lips.
A deep breath.
“Sean, can you hear me?”
A deep breath.
“Sean, if you slipped into your zone I’ll have to call the doc–”
Poppa Hymarc blinks. “What’s wrong, buddy?”
“How many times do I have to explain it? I’m a fuc–”
A hand falls over Sean’s mouth.
“You’re my son, Sean, and I love you. You’re a very bright kid, you’re smart and funny and really likable when you let yourself be liked. My life, and your mother’s, it wouldn’t be better without you. You’re our entire world Sean, you give our lives meaning. Without you, well…” He looks around the bedroom, but doesn’t see much because the lights are off. It’s a bedroom though, a separate bedroom for their boy, a separate bedroom that, alone, is bigger than the last apartment they lived in. “Without you, I wouldn’t be motivated to keep going. Me and your mom would probably be out on the streets, or worse. In Florida.”
A chill goes down Sean’s spine. No matter how fucked up in the head he is, he’d never go to Florida. Anything goes in Flurrida.
“But I’m not creative, I can’t make music or draw or tell stories or do anything.”
“Do you want to do any of that stuff, though?”
Sean uncurls a bit. He’s still wadded like a snotty tissue, but not quite as compressed. Like he blew his nose and was about to throw the rag out, but uncrumpled it a bit to check if there was any blood in his boogers. “What else is there to do? I’m a human, the point of human life is to be creative. If I can’t create anything, I’m broken. Useless. Pathetic. A was–”
“Who the hell told you that malarkey?” Poppa Hymarc booms, smile holding strong.
Sean, still balled, rolls over.
“There is no purpose to human life, Sean. Nobody knows where we came from, and nobody knows where we’re going. You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it.”
“Anything?” A sniffle. “But what about money?”
“Fuck the money. Kiddo, all the cash in the world couldn’t buy a second of contentedness. It’ll buy happiness, sure, but… happiness is a drug. It’s a high, and it fades and gives way to withdrawal.” He rubs his arm, feeling the raised scars from the once infected track marks through his sleeve. Dark days long ago in Nested Mill’s Ford, dark days indeed. “As long as you shine your light on the world, Sean, the money will come. The dogs might howl at you, but they always howl at the moon.” He laughs, then, “I don’t even think they know why they’re howlin’, but they’re a’howlin’ all the same.”
Sean says nothing, but he doesn’t roll back over; we take what we can get.
With a hand gently placed on his boy’s shoulder, “So, what do you want to do, Sean?”
“Die,” mumbled with self-pity embedded into the space between the letters.
Poppa Hymarc sighs He gets up and starts heading for the door.
“Why can’t you just fucking yell at me?”
That turns him around. “Beg your pardon, cowpoke?”
“Why can’t you just punish me, pa? Why do you give a shit, you and mom? Everyone else hates me, they don’t even have to say it, I see it in the way they look at me, in the way they look away once they’ve realized I’ve noticed them. How their feet shuffle when I enter a room. How conversations drop off the edge of a cliff when I approach earshot. How papers get stuffed in desks and lunch tables get cleared. How I don’t even get picked for basketball at recess. Everyone knows I’m a failure, everyone knows I’m gonna amount to nothing.” Looking his father dead in the eyes, “Why can’t you two get with the fucking program?”
Pop sits back down, but doesn’t face his son. His mind’s racing, blood pumping, head pounding in rhythm with his heart. “What do you want me to say, that you are doomed for failure? That no matter what you do, no matter where you go, you can’t handle the helm? That your ship will crash and you’ll be impaled by the crags jutting from the murky waters of your own incompetence? To just get a job, work for somebody, let someone take care of you? That you’ll never be able to take care of yourself?” A turn of the head, “Is that what you want to hear, Sean? Do you want me to spit garbage at you until your head is a landfill?”
Sean says nothing for a long time. Then, quieter than a mouse in a blouse when she’s hiding under her (apparently fucking married) lover’s bed, “Aquarium.”
Confusion puts on a mask that looks like Poppa Hymarc’s face. “Uh… quarium? Where’d that come from?”
“You asked what I wanted to do. I want an aquarium, I want to build an aquarium. Here, in Brick City. And fill it with dolphins and octopi and horseshoe crabs and all sorts of aquatic critters. It’s all I think about, ever since I saw that movie. It’s all I want. But science is my worst class and I’ll never be able to do it and I’m a fa–”
A hand once more falls upon Sean Hymarc’s mouth.
“You might not have gotten the highest mark, Sean, but you’re a Hymarc through and through. We go through some tough times – tougher times than most – take it from me, if you’re willing to take it. But things always pan out for us. We always end on the better side of things, isn’t that what matters?”
Sean makes a face that his father recognizes: consideration.
“So you want to build an aquarium then, right here in Brick City? And stock it full of all sorts of marine life for your neighbors to go and visit every day? Why, that’s beautiful Sean, that’s a spectacular dream.”
“Really?” voice smaller than that of the flea that lives in the fur of the mistress mouse. He tried to warn her; homegirl didn’t listen.
“Yeah, of course!” with a pat on the back that evolves into a rub, then a shake of the shoulder. “You can do anything you want Sean, and what you want to do is bring exotic wildlife to the city. Some kids born here never leave, they never see an ocean or a lake, they never get to see what mis-teerious creatures lurk down there in the depths of the sea. If you build this aquarium Sean, you could change the lives of thousands, and only for the better. I’m going to help you any way I can, and so is your mom. Okay?”
Sean says nothing, his brain spinning like a waterwheel. The tips of the wings slosh the surface, but that’s all they do.
“Because we love you Sean, we just want you to be content. So listen up: no more negativity, okay? No more beating yourself up so bad for no good reason, you don’t deserve that. Nobody deserves that, especially from themselves. Get some sleep, okay? We’ll make blueberry pancakes in the morning, to celebrate the summer.”
Poppa Hymarc kisses Sean on the cheek, and though the lights are out, he’ll be damned if he doesn’t see his son pinch off a little smile. Little, but bright enough to light up a room. Bright enough to light up a life. Bright enough to illuminate a dark, dank alleyway…
As he’s closing the door, pops pokes his head in to say, “You’re a special boy, Sean, you have a beautiful mind. Everything is gonna be okay. We love you.”
Sean drifts into his zone, wishing he could believe him.
Poppa Hymarc sits back on the couch. His wife asks him if Sean is okay.