Another head poked through the small opening in the door. This time it belonged to Rory, the floppy-haired kid from next door. He was wearing a Santa hat and didn’t say anything to James, who lay on the bed with his hands behind his head and his eyes up at the ceiling. He just wanted to get a look.
Everyone wanted to get a look. All afternoon, heads had been popping in and out of the room, getting one last look at him before he was gone. Had he taken his eyes off of the ceiling for more than a few seconds, he might have felt like some sort of zoo animal being gawked at by the blank faces of spectators, but he was too preoccupied to notice.
James Erp—although everyone called him, not affectionately, the Serpent or simply Serp—was about to be expelled. At least that was the word around Eaton Park, a private school named after the founder of the famous Canadian department store and located just outside of Toronto, surrounded by nothing but trees and hills. James was one of only three black kids at the school, the other two being seniors and athletes, whereas he was a sophomore and the furthest thing from athletic, so even among his own small group he was an outsider. He was also the only one of the three who was mixed-race, with a white father and black mother. Depending on his environment, his race was interchangeable, and never to his benefit.
There were any number of reasons for why James was about to be expelled, but he figured it had to do with the latest incident. Two nights earlier, a portly freshman who insisted on being called Will instead of Willy had a bad reaction to a drug (likely LSD, which had been coming back in fashion lately around Eaton Park, replacing mushrooms and marijuana as the previous intoxicants of choice). Will not Willy had taken more than he could handle and wound up running up and down the hall in only his school jacket, screaming, “I’ll show you the life of the mind,” a line from Barton Fink, which Will’s roommate later claimed they had watched the day before in Mrs. Tillman’s English class (many of the students commented on the physical similarities, minus the bottomlessness, between Will and John Goodman).
While there was no direct evidence implicating James in the incident, it was pretty well common knowledge around campus that most drugs came through him.
But really that was just the final straw in a long line of straws that, when put together, could have reached the peak of the CN Tower. He’d been in fights, skipped class, produced an underground newspaper that alleged various faculty members and students of certain illicit and sexual acts (not all of which were made up), and stolen the dean’s car. The latter had obviously never been proven, otherwise he would have been expelled a long time ago, but most believed that James was at least partially responsible for the mysterious disappearance (and even more mysterious reappearance two days later with an additional fifty miles on the odometer) of Dean Veer’s forest green BMW 528i.
“Serp?” James looked down to see the head of Tyler, the closest thing to a friend he had at Eaton Park. Like James, Tyler was a loner. When they hung out together they hardly said a word, instead communicating through their shared solitude. All of five feet and 115 pounds, with short red hair that always stood straight up, he was socially awkward in an entirely different way from James. He was an introvert with extrovert fantasies, whereas James was always looking for new ways to hone his introversion, such as by managing to wriggle his way into the only single dorm room on campus by pretending to have photophobia, which required him to have complete control over his room’s lighting.
James didn’t say anything.
He shrugged his shoulders and went back to staring at the ceiling. He could feel Tyler lingering in the doorway for several seconds before finally leaving.
After sticking their heads into his room, most of the students reported back to the group that James had looked sullen and even depressed about his imminent expulsion, but the truth was that the only thing he felt, staring up at the ceiling as though it might suddenly spell out some sort of message, was indifference. More than anything, he was bored, waiting to be called down to the dean’s office. He wanted to get it over with so badly that he had even considered taking the initiative and marching into the office unsolicited, but he thought against it. On second thought, he was in no rush.
The call finally came for him at five o’clock, just before dinner. James saw it as one last jab from the administration, trying to ruin his appetite. A voice he didn’t recognize came over the intercom. It wasn’t Veer and it wasn’t the administrative assistant, Ms. Nicholson, a mousy lady who wore the same dress only in a different color everyday (one for each day of the week). The fact that he couldn’t place the voice made it more ominous. It was low and serious, almost somber, simply announcing, “Mr. Erp, please report to the dean’s office. James Erp to the dean’s office.”
A dull roar from the students in the hall came drifting into his room. Before getting up to leave, he closed his eyes and tried to visualize how the meeting might go. He pictured himself sitting across from Veer, with the big wooden desk between them. He wondered if anyone else would be in the room. It’s not that he was afraid of the dean, but the thought of being alone in a room with him—or anyone for that matter—gave him the chills. Even though his face and body didn’t show it, he couldn’t deny that he was nervous.
When he opened his eyes, he could have sworn that the room was darker—that somehow, in a matter of seconds, it had gone from day to night. There was a collective murmur as he walked down the hall, and he could feel everyone’s eyes on him. Not that he blamed them. Everyone secretly enjoys watching other people’s lives fall apart.
Ms. Nicholson was wearing a new dress, which for some reason was unsettling to James. It was green and gold and a little less modest than the calf-length number she normally wore. Without saying a word, she led him down the short hall to the dean’s office and knocked on the door.
“Mr. Erp here to see you, Mr. Veer,” she said, opening the door just enough to stick her head in.
The dean’s response was inaudible to James.
“Go right in,” she said, stepping aside and presenting the open door to him. James tried to read the look on her face: a slight smile and upturned brow. Was it sympathy or mirth?
The walk to the desk was an awkward distance. James stepped over the afghan rug as quietly as possible, feeling almost like an intruder or burglar.
“Have a seat,” Veer said while looking down at an open folder.
After James sat down, there was silence for what felt to him like several minutes as Veer continued to consult the folder, which was so thick that James imaged it must have contained every detail of his life leading up to that moment, every poor decision he had ever made.
Finally the dean sat back, took off his glasses, and rubbed the bridge of his nose as though he had just finished reading the longest, most arduous novel of his life. After taking a deep breath, he looked down at James, and James knew that the sight of the dean, with his bald head highlighted in the dark room by the desk’s lamp, would stick with him forever. He could already picture himself sitting over a bowl of cereal one morning years down the line with this image popping into his head.
“Mr. Erp,” he began, and all the scenarios James had gone over in his head in preparation for the meeting instantly flew out the window. Nothing could prepare him for the real thing. “I never look forward to these kinds of meetings.” Something about the way he said it led James to believe that the dean had uttered those very words on more than one occasion, and they had long since lost their meaning. The statement also didn’t ring entirely true. “Do you know why you’re here?”
James thought, “In this room? In this school? This city? This world?” He shook his head.
Veer placed his fingertips together and made a ball with his hands. He rested his chin on the ball and said, “I’m going to be blunt with you. This is not a good meeting. You’re here because of some very serious incidents that have recently taken place.” He paused. It took James several seconds to realize that the pause was intended to allow him to respond.
He said nothing.
“It’s come to this institution’s attention that you have been distributing drugs to students.” He made it sound like James had been forcing them on people, as if others had had no choice in the matter, as if they hadn’t banged on his door at two in the morning asking if he had anything, as if he was the only one who had played a hand in it all. He used to tell himself that he started selling drugs to make money, but he soon realized that he did it in order to confirm the school’s perception of him. If they wanted him to be the black thug from the city, he was going to be it. “More than that,” Veer continued, “your history of malfeasance at this institution is quite extensive. Fights, poor attendance, inconsistent school work.”
Although James was a gifted student—otherwise he never would have been accepted into Eaton Park, no matter how eager they were to enroll a student with a “unique background”—he had a tendency to skip the stuff that didn’t interest him, like math or science or just about anything that demanded specific answers. To him, life wasn’t so black or white.
“Quite frankly, this was a long time coming. Since you entered this institution not two years ago, you have defied authority at every opportunity. It makes me wonder why you even came here in the first place.”
As if James had had a say in the matter. As if he wanted to be the only black kid his age at a school full of wealthy white kids. Sure they’d treated him fine at first. In fact, for a month or two everyone seemed to want to be his friend. For a while, being different was a good thing. Even his teachers had favored him, complimenting him on how “articulate” he was. But then at some point in the second semester of his first year, the novelty of the black kid wore off, and, as if the school had collectively made up its mind, instead of cool and anti-white, he was suddenly seen as different. He’d been treated differently at the school in the city, too, which is why his parents had decided to send him to Eaton Park, well out of their working class pay grade. At first he thought he was too white for the black kids and too black for the white, but then he realized that race had nothing to do with it. Maybe he was just different, no matter who he was around.
He’d been confronted with a newer, subtler form of racism at Eaton Park. Instead of coming straight out and calling him the n-word, they had all kinds of coded phrases and gestures that said it for them, like their own private language, and for some reason it was even more infuriating than if they were to look him in the eye and say it explicitly. With a simple look they could imply entire racial diatribes, yet if he ever called them out on it, they would plead ignorance, making James look overly sensitive or paranoid. And the entire school administration had fallen for it. Every time he was dragged into the dean’s office, he was painted as the instigator, the one who had thrown the first punch, which was true only in the physical sense.
“I think we’ve been pretty tolerant with you,” Veer said, lowering the ball of his hands to the desk and glaring at James from underneath his thick brow. The halogen lamps in the courtyard suddenly popped on, covering the left side of the dean’s body in a sodium glow, while the right side remained in the dark. “We’ve given you plenty of opportunities to change your ways, yet time and time again you’ve defied the principles of the institution, leaving us no choice.”
James inferred from the silence that ensued that the dean was giving him another opportunity to speak.
“Well, do you have anything to say for yourself?”
James looked around the room while he thought of something to say. It was what he imaged every dean’s office to look like: shades of dark green and brown, leather-bound books, framed diplomas from schools that boast of their exclusivity yet every academic seems to have attended, busts of ancient figures who look as though they’ve never smiled a day in their life.
“What’s the point? You said it yourself. You’ve already made up your mind. You’d made up your mind ages ago. Anything I say right now is a waste of breath. I could defend myself, give you my side of the story, but it wouldn’t do anything. You wouldn’t listen. You’re only interested in your story, in the institution’s story. I’m just a side character who’s being pushed out of the narrative altogether. You’ll have no problem forgetting about me as soon as I’m gone. But I don’t care, because the phoniness of this place makes me sick, the way everyone walks around as if they’ve actually done something with their lives, as if they’ve actually accomplished something. Like you, what have you done that’s so special? Why should I listen to you? You’re just some guy. Sure, some guy in an expensive suit, but still just some guy. That doesn’t make you anything. And the teachers at this school. If they’re so great, then why are they teaching? They act as if by reading the books of great authors they’ve absorbed that greatness. But it’s all bullshit.”
Or at least that’s what James would have said, had he cared enough to say anything. Instead, he simply shrugged.
“Well then I guess there’s nothing left to say. James Erp, as of this moment you are expelled from Eaton Park.”
Of all the reactions, of all the possible things he could have said or done in that moment, James did the one thing he never imagined he’d do: he laughed. He didn’t mean to. It just happened. He tried to hold it in but there was no stopping it. It started off as a grin, then it progressed to a chuckle, and before he knew it he was laughing so hard that he could barely breathe. He grabbed his stomach and leaned forward in his chair, unable to contain the train of laughter that was barreling up his chest and out of his mouth.
Light from the hallway poured into the room, and he turned around to see Ms. Nicholson—her dress now appearing to be more black than green in the darkened office—standing in the doorway with a confused and horrified look on her face. The sight of her made him laugh even harder, until he spilled out of his chair and fell onto his knees on the rug. The muscles in his cheeks began to burn as tears flooded his eyes. Some part of him, perhaps the part that had caused him to begin laughing in the first place and which he apparently had no control over, was enjoying it, but another part, the part that didn’t know when it was going to stop, was terrified.
Veer rose from his seat and joined Ms. Nicholson standing over James. They watched with concern as he writhed on the ground in hysterics like a seizure victim.
Even after he had been given the news that they had already called his father, James continued to laugh. And he didn’t stop laughing until he stepped outside. It ended just as suddenly as it had started, leaving him with a dull pain in his head like a euphoria hangover.
It was now nighttime. The last bit of light had drained from the sky, leaving it a swirly licorice color. The campus was covered in Christmas decorations. Green and red lights ran up and down the poles along the walkway. James rubbed his eyes, thinking that his vision had gone blurry, before realizing that the entire campus was covered in a thick fog in the unseasonably warm night. The Christmas lights, which looked out of place without snow, ballooned to five times their size in the mist.
He decided to skip dinner and went straight back to his room. The halls were completely empty. His room seemed different from when he had left it less than an hour earlier. Everything was the same, but it was as if the color scheme had changed, as if he was staring at it through a new lens. He lay back down on his bed and stared up at the ceiling once more. The same but different.
He tried to close his eyes but he was too anxious to sleep. If not for his father, he wouldn’t have cared about being kicked out. In fact, it was somewhat of a relief. But every time he thought about his father’s unsmiling face, a pang of anxiety travelled from his stomach to his throat. It wasn’t that his father was violent or temperamental; it was just the opposite. James’s father, also named James but everyone called him Jim, was about as unexpressive as a person could get without being catatonic. It was as if by not speaking or implying anything his father forced you to project your own anxieties and concerns onto his blank face, thereby making you reproach yourself. And in James’s experience, it was far more effective than any lecture or scorning he had ever received. He would have rather faced the wrath of an entire justice system than stare into his father’s neutral eyes for even a second.
As he was leaving the dean’s office, Ms. Nicholson told James that his father would be down to pick him up at the end of the week. At least they had given him a few days. Maybe they thought he had friends he wanted to say bye to. Or maybe it was a cruel and subtle way for them to assert their power over him one last time.
But James couldn’t wait that long, so he jumped off the bed and started to pack, taking only the essentials and leaving everything else behind. As he was emptying out his drawers, he heard someone coming down the hall, followed by the sound of his door creaking open. Without having to look, he knew who it was. One of the many little skills he’d picked up through years of being a loner was the ability to tell exactly who was around him without having to look. It was like the opposite of a superpower—a neurodivergent power.
“Going on a trip?” said Kevin, the big blond kid from the end of the hall. Through a process of survival of the fittest, the sole criteria of which appeared to be size, Kevin, whose face was so fat that it seemed to lack all features, had been deemed the ringleader of the sophomore bullies and therefore the anti-James brigade, and he was constantly trailed by a handful of cronies who hung on his every word and punch. So James was not the least bit surprised that he was the first person to greet him after his meeting with the dean. He was, however, surprised to see that he was alone.
“I said are you going on a trip?” Again James didn’t respond. He could hear the grin in Kevin’s voice. That grin had driven James crazy for a year and a half and ruined more than one night of sleep.
“Where you going, Serp? Taking a vacation or something? Somewhere nice I hope. Hey, be sure to send us a postcard when you get there.”
Still James said nothing and continued to pack with his back to the door. All he wanted to do at that point was leave. Each breath he took at Eaton Park felt more and more constricting.
“Don’t forget to pack your cocoa butter.” Kevin started to back out of the room, but before he had a chance to leave James wheeled around and struck him on the top of the head with whatever he had in his hand. There was a sickening cracking sound, followed by an even more sickening silence, before Kevin fell with a thud backward into the hallway.
James looked down at his hand. He was holding the New York snow globe his aunt from Brooklyn had sent him two Christmases earlier. Snow swirled around the tiny Chrysler Building at a languid pace as red streaks ran down the outside of the glass. He placed the globe on the ground and peaked into the hallway, where Kevin lay on his back with a grin still plastered on his face. His eyes were partially open but blood had begun to pool around his head like an evil halo.
James looked up and down the hallway. No one was around, but he knew they’d be piling in from dinner any second, so he hurried back into his room, grabbed his stash of drugs and his wad of money (which he’d brazenly kept in an unlocked desk drawer, perhaps with the subconscious desire of getting caught), and took off.
With his suitcase clutched to his chest, he ran until his steps synchronized with his heartbeat, making it impossible to differentiate between the poundings. It felt as though an invisible hand was pushing down on his heart, trying to get it to sink into his stomach. Running was the only thing he could think to do, so he didn’t stop until the invisible hand went away. When he reached the end of the tree line, he turned around in the middle of the road and looked back at the faint form of the campus in the fog. It already felt like a distant memory.
There was no plan. All he knew was that he had to get out of there as fast as he could. The image of Kevin’s bloody, supine body hung before his eyes. For all he knew, the cops were already looking for him. In a matter of seconds, his expulsion had turned into an escape.
The bus came to a screeching stop at the side of the road. The driver apparently hadn’t noticed the dark figure until the last minute. As he boarded, he lowered his head and quickly walked to a seat at the back. The only other passenger was an old woman with a pair of grocery bags. As they pulled away, he sunk down into his seat and threw on his hood.
The first thing James did when he got to the city was find a dark alley, the exact opposite of what he had been taught as a child. Using the light from a nearby apartment window, he pulled out a dime bag and expertly rolled a small joint. Unlike most of the students at Eaton Park, James didn’t venture out very far when it came to his drug of choice. He had tried other stuff—mushrooms, acid, ecstasy, Quaaludes, ketamine, fentanyl lollipops, and just about anything else that came in pill form—but after all the experimentation he realized that he was a pot guy.
As he smoked at the edge of the alley’s shadow, he stared out at the downtown street and watched as the world twisted and changed around him: colors becoming heightened, sounds dulled, and the fog even thicker. With each drag, his face became visible in the dark, illuminated by the orange glow.
After he finished the joint, he lingered in the alley for several minutes while considering his course of action. Assuming the news hadn’t already reached him, he figured he still had until the end of the week until his father came looking for him, and he had more than enough money to fend for himself until then. In fact, if he wanted, he had enough money to last for months.
Not yet ready to be alone in a hotel room, with the little bit of courage that he’d gained from the pot, James stepped out of the darkness and into the street. The sky had turned a shade darker, now somehow blacker than black, as if tinged with a purple hue. With no place to go, he chose a direction at random and started walking.
One of James’s favorite activities when he lived in the city was streetwalking. He used to spend hours roaming the streets, taking lefts and rights at random, skipping school to spend entire days just walking, not even stopping to get food. He liked the feeling of being among people without having to engage anyone—a part of, yet distinct from, the crowd. Unbeknownst to James, it was because of these walks that his parents decided to send him to Eaton Park. It wasn’t the fact that he’d been getting into fights on an almost daily basis at his old school; it was because his mother, while out running errands one day, had come across him on one of his walks. Rather than confront him for not being in school, she left him alone, sensing for the first time her son’s loneliness. The next day, however, she and James’s father told him he’d be transferring.
As he started walking, he wondered if, rather than return home to face his parents, he could simply walk the streets forever like a peripatetic loner, peering into windows as others existed comfortably in their inside worlds. But before he could even reach the end of the block, he began to sense that he was being shadowed. In order to test his hunch, he picked up his pace and sure enough the footsteps behind him sped up as well. Using his heightened sense of spatial awareness, James inferred that there were at least four of them. Without giving away that he knew he was being followed, he turned left at the nearest street and waited behind the wall.
As soon as they appeared, he lunged forward, using his suitcase as a shield, and managed to spear two men to the ground. He dug his elbow into the face of one and kicked the other in the gut, enough to keep them off their feet for a few seconds while he dealt with the others. In one motion, he jumped up and threw a wild right, connecting awkwardly on a forehead. He spun around to confront the fourth member of the group but was tripped by one of the men on the ground, the other still reeling from the kick to the stomach. James wrestled for a bit, absorbing kicks and punches to his face and body before squirming free and getting back to his feet. His face was slick with blood, and he could barely see out of his left eye. With no specific target in mind, he lowered his head and threw another right, putting all of his weight into it like an outfielder making a throw to the plate. He connected squarely on the bridge of a nose, his hand instantly warm with blood, but then just as he was winding up to throw another punch, he was hit on the side of the jaw. He lost consciousness so quickly that it was as if someone had simply flipped a switch in his brain, causing all the lights in the world to go out.
When the lights switched back on, James was on his back in the middle of the sidewalk with his arms and legs to the sides of his body as if preparing to make a snow angel. He lay on the ground staring up at the purple-black sky for nearly a minute before sitting up. Then the panic set in. He jumped to his feet and followed a trail of his belongings around the corner to find his suitcase lying open on the sidewalk. They’d taken his stash and every last dollar.
It was another form of expulsion. No longer able to pay the price of admission to even the cheapest place in the city, James sat on the ground with his back against the wall and weighed his options. After being kicked out of just about every place he’d ever been, he realized that his fantasy of becoming a streetwalker was more likely than he’d imagined.
Wondering where someone goes when they have no place left to go, he got up and started walking. Before he could think of an answer, he looked up to see that his feet had answered his question for him, as he was standing in front of his old apartment building. Without realizing it, he’d walked the entire distance to his home, no less than 10 blocks.
It took him nearly an hour to build up the courage just to enter the building, pacing back and forth on the sidewalk like a crazy person, with drops of blood tracing his route. When he finally went in, he couldn’t get past the lobby, so he sat in a chair next to the mailboxes and fell asleep.
He snapped awake to the sound of his mother’s voice. It was still dark out but she was already heading to work. She’d started working full-time in order to help pay for the high cost of tuition at Eaton Park. Seeing her with bags under her eyes in her cheap grey pantsuit nearly brought him to tears.
“Oh my god, James. What happened to you?”
He started to say something but she spared him.
As he ascended the stairs to their apartment, he was comforted by the fact that his father, who often worked night shifts, was likely to be asleep. Because of their work schedules, his parents were barely ever home at the same time, seeing each other just enough to say hello and goodbye. For some reason, though, on that day his father was still up, sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. He didn’t say anything when he lowered his paper and saw his son’s bloody face in the doorway. But then he didn’t have to say anything.
“Sit down,” his mother said, gesturing to the chair next to his father. She wet a cloth and dabbed at the bruises on his face. “So, what happened to you?”
So much had happened that night that he didn’t know where to begin, so he decided to tell them everything, from the beginning, without deception. Not just everything that had happened that day, but everything that had happened leading up to it, purging himself of everything he’d been bottling up for years: the drugs, the fights, the fact that he felt like an outcast wherever he went. It was more than he’d said in the last year and a half combined, and it took him nearly an hour to get it all out. When he finished, the sun had risen, and he felt so lightheaded that he thought he might pass out. After several moments of silence, his father finally spoke.
“Well,” he said, and for a minute James thought it might be all that he was going to say, before he continued, “you’re home now.”
For the first time in his life, he was able to interpret his father’s blank stare, and he read genuine concern in it.
After eating and changing his clothes, James lay down on his old bed. Once again he had the sensation of being in a room that felt the same but different. The light blue walls, the posters of musicians whose music he’d long grown out of, the window that looked out onto the soot-covered apartment building across the courtyard. Nothing about it had changed, but it wasn’t the same place.
He closed his eyes and tried to hear what his parents were saying in the kitchen, but in a matter of seconds he fell asleep to the sound of their muffled voices.
Graeme Carey’s work has appeared in Voices de la Luna, Five Quarterly, and Grub Street Literary Magazine. He was named an Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers.