Samuel Clearwater, that’s who.
“Brantley King,” I answered.
“You got a lot of friends, Brantley King?” Samuel’s unruly sandy blonde hair fell forward into his eyes, and he brushed it away with dirt caked fingernails.
“Nope.” None of the kids in school were like me. I’d felt alone since my very first day in Kindergarten. While everyone else was learning the words to Old McDonald, I was worried about how long I was going to have to wait until after dark to go home. Too early and whatever guy my mom let move in that month would be ready to brawl.
Being on my own was natural to me. As time went on, it became something I liked. Although I was the biggest kid in school, I’d always managed to move around like a ghost.
Until I started getting in trouble.
Then WE started getting into trouble together. Preppy and I. Two pees in a juvenile delinquent pod.
“Me neither. Way more trouble than their fucking worth,” Samuel said, almost convincingly. He re-tucked his too-large plaid shirt into his kaki pants, righting his suspenders that fell off his shoulders every few seconds. He straightened his yellow polka-dotted bow-tie.
“What’s up with the bruises?” I asked, pointing to his ribs.
“You saw those, huh?” Sadness crossed over his face, but he fought back whatever he was thinking about and pursed his lips. “Stepdaddy from hell with issues, ever since my mom’s died. Actually, he’s got only two issues. Beer and me. Beer he likes though. Me? Not so much.”
I could relate. Although I didn’t have one stepdad, more like a constant parade of men. They all had different names, different faces, but essentially they were all the same.
“Well, kid, I don’t think Tyler is going to bug you again.” I started walking again, heading back to my spot on the side of the building where I could be alone. In the corner of my eye I saw Tyler hobbling up the steps into the school, clutching his jaw.
“That’s it?” Samuel followed close behind me, knocking into my heels.
“What else is there?” I ducked under the branch of a low hanging tree. Samuel was easily a foot shorter than me and scooted under it without any problems. When we got far enough away from the other kids I lit the half-cigarette I’d been saving in my back pocket with the last match from the book I’d been hiding in my shoe.
“Can I try?” Samuel asked, startling me. I hadn’t realized he was still there.
I passed him the cigarette, and he inhaled deeply. He then spent the next five minutes choking. I put the cigarette out on the sole of my sneaker while his face turned a weird shade of purple before going back to pale smeared with freckles and blood. “That’s really fucking good, but I’m a menthol man myself.”
A burst of laughter escaped me, and I bent over, hugging myself at the waist. Samuel ignored my outburst and continued talking. “Where do you live?”
“Here and there.” Nowhere was the truth. I wasn’t ever going back home again. School would now become just a place to go during the day so I could sneak into the locker room before class to shower and for the free breakfast program. Everything I owned was in my backpack.
And it was light.
“I’m over in Sunny Isles Park. It’s a fucking shithole. When I grow up, I’m going to have one of those big places on the water on the other side of the causeway with the long legs that look like they’re from Star Wars.”
“Like one of them stilt homes?”
“Yeah man, a fucking Star Wars stilt home, right on the bay.” This boy lived in a trailer park where he was beaten up by his stepdad, and here he was dreaming about his future. I couldn’t see my way past next week, never mind to the next ten years. “What about you, man?”
“What about me?” I unhooked my pocket knife from the waistband of my jeans and used it to pick at the falling stucco on the side of the building.
“What are you gonna do when you grow up?”
The only thing I really knew was what I didn’t want. “Not sure. I just know that I don’t want to work for anyone. Never liked being told what to do all that much. I’d like to be my own boss, run my own shit.”
“Yeah, man. That’s fucking amazing. Yes, that. I’ll help you. We can do it together. You run the shit. I’ll help you run the shit. Then, we’ll buy a big ’ole Star Wars stilt home and live there, and no one will be able tell us what to fucking do ever again!”
Samuel removed a composition notebook from his backpack and turned to a blank page. “Let’s make a mother fucking plan.”