At home now, lying on the floor with his head propped against his bedframe, he interrupts his reading again to glance at the book’s cover. He keeps waiting for the story to correspond to the picture. The dragon is named Gleep, the man Skeeve, the demon Aahz. So far there is no sign of the unicorn. Every chapter begins with a made-up quote, like ‘ “That’s funny, I never have any trouble with service when I’m shopping.” – K. Kong’ or ‘ “This contest has to be the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.” – H. Cosell.’ It is totally hilarious – or supposed to be, anyway – and even when it isn’t, it is at least agreeable: funny in a jokey-uncle sort of way. It makes Kevin feel clever for getting what the K stands for, and the H. Ever since junior high began, several times and for no reason at all, he has woken in the small hours of the morning with the conviction that he’s far from home and that his room, his posters, his comics, his record player – that none of it belongs to him. His desk is like an ancient altar on some faraway hilltop, standing beneath the ruined white moonscape of his ceiling. Where could he be? How did he get there? But he is never more comfortable, more at peace, than when he’s stretched out on his carpet in the quiet of the afternoon, reading by the light of his window, the sun making the pages of his book glow like milk in a clear glass. He feels as if he was born here, right here, between his bed and his dresser. As if he has never moved so much as an inch.
After church on Sunday, he finishes the Myth book and puts it in his satchel. He has never lost that old elementary school show-and-tell impulse, the sense that every cool new thing he discovers immediately becomes a part of him, a hallmark of his personality, with its own little interior ribbon-cutting ceremony, and he has to carry it around with him, whatever it might be, or how will anyone know who he is?
In Bible the next day, before the bell rings, he shows the book to Ethan Carpenter. ‘This,’ he says, ‘is the single best thing I’ve ever read. I’m talking, in my life.’
‘Sweet. Can I borrow it?’
Mr. Garland has stepped across the hall to talk to Mr. Shoaf, and Leigh Cushman – a guy with a girl’s name – is pacing at the chalkboard, smacking his palm with the back of his hand like a substitute. ‘You kids’re in big trouble. Take your seats. Stop talking right now, or you’re all going to D-Hall. I mean it! This instant! That’s it, every one of you’s going to D-Hall. I’m giving you all checks. One check. Two checks. Corn Chex. Wheat Chex,’ and maybe in the end it was just a reflex, Kevin thinks, but if he had to guess, he would say that the reason he doesn’t want to loan the book out is because of the part of his personality that is one gigantic record keeping system, a complex sifting and filing scheme that dictates what goes here and what goes there, turning his life into so many marks on a tablet. His mind would busy itself with the book’s whereabouts every last second it was away. He knows it would.
‘Okay, yes, you can borrow it, but Ethan? Look. You have to be careful.’
‘Dude. . . ’ Ethan says, meaning, You’ve seen my comic books, haven’t you? His collection is as big as Kevin’s – bigger even. He keeps it in a row of long white boxes he tends like a garden, gently maneuvering each issue into a clear Mylar bag with an acid-free board, then taping it shut, vertically not horizontally, so that the tape doesn’t fray or separate, and arranging it with the others in alphabetical and numerical order. Side by side his comic boxes have the quality of giant Japanese fans, their slats closed chock-chock-chock. Kevin wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Ethan dusts them.
He surrenders the book across the aisle as Mr. McCallum begins the morning announcements. Just like that it vanishes into Ethan’s backpack, throwing a few scattered dots of color through the mesh of the front pocket.
For the rest of the day, Kevin feels the way he did that time he locked himself out of the house and saw his house key resting on the kitchen counter. The book is behind a window. The book is his, but he cannot touch it. Part of him would rather bike back to Kroger and buy another copy than wait for Ethan to return it. He is like that, always like that. He is no good at hiding it. A few Saturdays ago, sitting by the fountain at the JCPenney end of the shopping mall, he realized he was missing the bag with his butter mints and his pop-its and his Song Hits Magazine, and Kenneth said, ‘Kevin. Stop it. Good Lord. Look,’ gesturing to the ledge where he had lain the bag while he was tying his shoes. ‘You’re about to cry, aren’t you? Why are you like that all the time?’
In reading, Mrs. Bissard – Mrs. Bizarre, everyone calls her: it is irresistible – gives them a vocabulary test, and as soon as Kevin has finished, he begins working on a detective story, the kind he has been writing ever since the first grade, hypothesizing that someone he knows, usually a kid from his class, has vanished and he has been appointed to solve the crime. The Case of the Missing Sarah Watts. The Case of the Missing Craig Bateman. Or this time, for a change, a teacher: The Case of the Missing Miss Vincent.
He plunges into the mystery with, ‘The authorities were baffled,’ then sketches the facts of the case – how two days before, in fifth period, Miss Vincent had discovered Clint Fulkerson snoring at his desk and, when she couldn’t wake him, left to fetch the principal. ‘Aaaaaahhh! It was a scream, and, no doubt about it, it was Miss Vincent. The scream brought the whole school running. Clint had even awoken. When we got to the stairs, though, all we found were some ink stains. Miss Vincent had been teacher-napped!’
It’s always the same for Kevin, the story gusting along before him with its sails stretched tight, a boat seized by some strange and incredible wind. He relaxes his hold on it for PE, but only reluctantly. The whole time he and Alex Braswell are heaving the big leather boulder of the medicine ball back and forth, its casing scuffed and velveted like a walnut’s, he continues to unravel the mystery’s details. That evening, at home, he returns to his notebook. He assembles a list of suspects from the five students who were away from class when the abduction took place: Tommy Anderson, Chris Pickens, Scott Freeman, Sheila Wood and Annalise Blair. Each of them, it turns out, was given a hall pass for exactly the same reason: to dispose of a leaky pen. Ah-ha! Ink! Like the ink in the stairwell! he thinks. He deduces that Clint Fulkerson must have been drugged with sleeping powder, but when he investigates the filing cabinet in the office for evidence, he uncovers only ‘some confiscated candy, gum to be precise, and a paddle with a peculiar stain on it.’ The case seems hopeless, until the criminal delivers a note to Kevin’s locker:
If you want to find Miss Vincent
Then I’ll give you just one clue
The letter of where she is at
Has the same letter as you!
You, he thinks. U! The U Hobby Shop! And sure enough, that’s where he finds her, bound to a post in the basement. She tells him she was struck from behind, spilling her can of Diet Coke as she fell unconscious. It happened so fast that she cannot identify her assailant – but Kevin can.
The next morning, in chapel, he claims the microphone from Coach McAteer and explains everything: how Clint was disabled with tranquilizers to drive Miss Vincent from the classroom, how the pens were sabotaged and the stairwell doctored with ink as a ruse, but how the criminal forgot one crucial piece of evidence: the paddle with its brown splashes of Diet Coke. And whose trademark drink is Diet Coke? Miss Vincent’s. And who uses a paddle? The principal: Mr. McCallum! His villainy is inarguable, and he knows it. In desperation he brandishes a gun, but Kevin disarms him with a karate chop. ‘The police took Mr. McCallum to jail,’ he concludes. ‘I had succeeded and somehow knew this was only the beginning of my career as a detective.’
There is a sound to finishing a story like the first note of the 3.30 bell. Inside him a great crowd goes pouring into the daylight.
The next morning, after Bible, Ethan returns Kevin’s book, which he has read overnight in a single tremendous chug. He might be the single most efficient person Kevin knows – studying efficiently and falling asleep efficiently, spending his allowance efficiently and borrowing books efficiently. It is one of the five adjectives Kevin would use to describe him to a stranger: Ethan Carpenter is (1) efficient (2) focused (3) sarcastic (4) truthful and (5) amused. If he were a superhero, he would be Iron Man – or, in the DC Universe, Green Lantern, the real one, Hal Jordan. ‘This book is awesome,’ he says. ‘When you’re right, you’re right. Just one problem, though: where’s the unicorn?’
‘That’s what I thought,’ Kevin says.
‘I mean, he’s right smack on the cover.’
‘We should sue for false advertising.’
‘On principle alone we should sue.’
‘It would be like leaving Jesus out of the Bible – or not Jesus but, you know, Paul. Elijah. Who would be the unicorn in the Bible?’
Kevin often has to walk clear across CAC between classes. Because there is always the danger of a tardy slip, he carries half a day’s books at once, trading the first set for the second immediately after geography. He tilts his way down the hall, pausing every so often to engineer the weight of his satchel from one shoulder onto the other. Then he propels himself forward again. The bag is like a sack of cement, so heavy that its strap creaks to the rhythm of his footsteps. He sees older kids, and lots of them, strolling along with only a single book in their hands. They veer casually off toward their lockers as if school is just some temporary mix-up they’ve made up their minds to tolerate for a while. They must exist in a totally different sort of time. Kevin wonders if they notice him at all, the skinny seventh-grader in the striped shirt slicing past them outside the lunch room, counting his books to make sure he hasn’t forgotten any.
Today, in English, they finish talking about subjects and begin talking about verbs. There are two kinds, Miss Vincent says, linking and action, and she gives them a hand-out with instructions to underline each verb and label it with either an L or an A. The worksheets are fresh from the ditto machine, and the paper bites at the air with its chemicals, each purple letter shedding a narrow outline of ink. Kevin ticks through the sentences one by one, then hands the assignment in along with the story he wrote. He is nervous – he can’t help it. He feels the way he used to feel passing love notes to girls in elementary school. Do you like me? the notes always read. Check yes or no. But he is older now and his question is older, too, not Do you like me? but Shouldn’t someone?
He pretends to study for science. Secretly, though, he watches Miss Vincent’s expression as she flips through the pages of the story, the way her lips tighten at one corner but not the other, a smile with a limp to it. What does it mean?
After the bell, she summons him to her desk and asks, ‘Is this for me to keep?’
‘Well, no. But I can copy it out for you. Do you like it?’
‘Kevin, it’s great. So fun, and inventive, and cunning. It’s like I’m watching a play, with actors and everything. I’m serious. You could stage this, and it would get a standing ovation.’
‘What about the Diet Coke part? Did you like that?’
‘That part especially.’
The usual slowpokes are jamming the stairs. It is against the rules to slide down the banister.
And all those love notes, he thinks. Dozens of them, one after another, daring somebody to say yes. In the fifth grade, in a fever of recklessness, he wrote to a different girl every few weeks, folding each letter into its own small packet, not one of those masterly arrangements with pouches and crisscrossing corners but the basic clumsy square that boys made, delivering it to the cabinet where the kids filed their school supplies. Do you like me? Do you? Now and then he wanted a day where the something that happened was him. He remembers the exhilaration he felt waiting for the gossip to spread. In February, just before Valentine’s Day, when everyone was always going with everyone else, he decided to make a play for Tara Watson. He biked with Bateman to the Balloonacy in Colony West and used his Christmas money to buy the store’s largest balloon, a two-and-a-half-foot-wide Mylar heart, arranging to have it delivered to her at school. The secret was too momentous for Bateman to keep. On Valentine’s Day, by the time the knock came at the door midway through the afternoon, the whole class knew what to expect. They leaned forward to watch Miss Judy, the school secretary, steering the balloon sideways with her palm, guiding it awkwardly through the door, like a zookeeper trying to coax an elephant into a cage, and a big thundering laugh ripped through the seats. Tara hid behind her lank blonde hair, then fled the room crying. For the rest of the day, the valentine swayed in the currents above her desk, turning slowly on its crimped pink ribbon to display one side and then the other: the bright red face, the swollen silver mirror. Miss Taylor told Kevin that he was incorrigible. She had him look the word up in the dictionary.
Nearly two years have gone by since then. Now Tara is just another girl towering over him in the hallways. He can barely remember what it felt like to believe he was in love with her.
It doesn’t matter.
The Case of the Missing Miss Vincent: A Play in Five Acts. It takes Kevin the rest of the day, but he is able to complete the script just before bed, rounding it off with a full list of the characters. He brushes his teeth, and he does his math homework, and he slides the Myth book onto his bookcase, where it fills the gap it left as neatly as a rock prised from clay. Then he turns out the lights and waits to forget himself, and after a while he must because it is morning.
Everything else seems to happen very quickly. By lunch Miss Vincent has read the play. He is cutting past the break room toward the Coke machines when she pulls him aside to suggest that he try mounting a production with some of the other seventh-graders, and that afternoon he gets an appointment with Coach McAteer, who agrees to assign him a date on the chapel schedule, ‘Let’s see, why don’t we say – oh – Thursday two weeks,’ and then Kevin rewrites the script in his most legible handwriting and asks his mom to Xerox the pages and holds auditions to select the actors, and Julia Harris is Miss Vincent, and Asa Stephens is Mr. McCallum and Sean Hammons is Kevin Brockmeier, and Kevin himself is the narrator, and they meet in the library every day to rehearse their lines, along with the rest of the cast, the bit players, and no one wants to memorize the dialogue, it’s way too much work, so fine, he says, whatever, they can carry their stupid scripts, and one day between classes he spies Annalise Blair saying, ‘Who me?,’ giving a palms-up gesture of amiable confusion, which is exactly how Anna Succhi, who depicts Annalise in the play, reacts when she learns she’s a suspect in the disappearance of Miss Vincent, and he wonders if there is a word for the kind of fame that makes it difficult to tell whether people are making fun of you, and two weeks have passed in a moment, and the show is premiering tomorrow, and he is carpooling home with Kenneth and Clay and Bateman, and the river is dotted with a thousand white circles like confetti from a three-hole puncher, and Kevin prays for some force to whisk him a few miles further through his life and deposit him a day or two away, in that patch of sunlight blazing just up ahead, when the hard part will be over and he will not need to worry. But it doesn’t work. It never does.
The next morning at school, it can’t be two minutes before Sean Hammons grabs him by the arm and pins him with a look of apology. ‘Kevin,’ he rasps, and Bullshit, Kevin thinks. You’re faking. ‘I can’t talk, man. I’m sorry. I’ve got laryngitis.’
‘Look – ’ Kevin begins. ‘C’mon – ’ but he can tell that Sean has settled on his decision. It’s right there in his gaze, fixed in bold embarrassment. All around them is the ratcheting noise of locker handles, the lapping and boiling of conversations, and Kevin’s mind keeps offering up the same thought, over and over again, in the brightest of colors. ‘You’re the star of the play. What am I supposed to do?’
Sean is all shoulders. ‘I’m sorry. I can’t talk. I’m serious.’
‘So who’s going to be me then?’
‘But I’m the narrator.’
But the narrator is supposed to stand at one end of the stage, and Sean is supposed to follow the action: Kevin Brockmeier, the shrewd and fearless detective, dashing here and there after each new piece of evidence. That’s how they’ve rehearsed it. Kevin can’t be everywhere at once.
The first bell rings. He has five minutes, he realizes, no more than that, to hunt for a new lead actor. But his best friends are total chickens. Thad says he has stage fright, and so does Ethan, and Kenneth is in the other Bible class, and Bateman guffaws – guffaw-guffaws – and says, ‘No way. Nuh-uh. Find someone else to humiliate.’
Finally Kevin manages to coax a yes out of Stephen Webb. Stephen! He won’t do any acting, he says, but he is willing to read the part of the narrator. ‘Take it or leave it, Kev.’
‘Thanks. You saved my life. So you’ll meet us on stage?’
‘Good. Over and out.’
All right then: Stephen Webb will be the narrator, and Kevin Brockmeier will be Kevin Brockmeier and Sean Hammons will have laryngitis.
After the second bell, Mr. Garland lowers the lights to use the overhead projector. In the humming gray dusk of the classroom, with the windows framing the cars and bushes, Kevin scans his script for what must be the thousandth time. He tries to concentrate on his new lines, but by now he knows the words so well that it’s like reciting the Lord’s Prayer or the Pledge of Allegiance. The meaning is buried far beneath the rhythm. Our Father, who art the flag, hallowed by thy name. How strange everything seems – Mike Beaumont doodling in the margins of his notebook, Saul Strong cleaning his fingernails, Matthew Connerly levering the back legs of Jim Boothby’s desk up off the floor and then letting them crash back down.
‘Boothby! Is there some problem you’d like to share with us?’
‘No, sir. Sorry,’ and a second later, in a pissed-off whisper, ‘Quit it, Matt.’
There they are, a roomful of people spending an ordinary hour at school while Kevin sits in the first seat of the third row, quietly burning to cinders. Go. Go. The clouds draw their shadows across the parking lot. The intercom scratches out an accidental rustle. He pays just enough attention to Mr. Garland to answer a question or two, but at the first clap of the chapel bell he launches himself into the hallway. He beats the crowd to the side door of the gym, drags the prop desks, microphone, and filing cabinet out from the wings of the stage, then waits in back for the rest of the cast to arrive, plucking at the odd machinery of ropes on the wall, arranged like the strings of a piano. One, two, Brandon Ostermueller. Four, five, Jennifer Graham. Ten plus himself, and that makes eleven. His cast. Beyond the curtain he spies a fragment of the basketball court, a thin band of yellow wall where faces appear and vanish atop long shimmers of clothing, but except for Ann Harold, who veers into the girls’ locker room, he doesn’t see anyone he knows.
The gym becomes saturated with voices. Then Coach McAteer silences everyone for the prayer and the opening hymn, the Mustang motto and the announcements. ‘Today,’ he says, ‘we have something special for you, a play presented by CAC’s seventh grade class, entitled “The Case of the Missing Miss Vincent”.’
Kevin gives the signal to Joseph Luigs, Policeman #2, who is on curtain duty. He had imagined that taking the stage would be like diving into the ocean, but it is exactly the opposite, as if the dazzling lights have lifted him from the water and set him down on dry land. Life is so much easier without the salt spray and the buffeting of the waves. How come he never realized? His nerves fall away from him in an instant as he projects his lines into the stillness. Acting isn’t like he thought it would be. He is not a detective solving a crime, just himself, but a different version of himself, a better one, with an audience. From every side he hears the dialogue he wrote, all those jokes and hunches, screams and snores, who-me’s and sighs of relief, each of them coming at precisely the right moment. Stephen has trouble deciphering Kevin’s penmanship and keeps supplementing his lines with the stage directions: ‘It was two days ago and Miss Vincent was in her fifth period class. Miss V. hits Clint over head three times with paddle – lightly but make it look hard.’ But otherwise the play ticks along without a blunder. All the bleacher sounds register in the darkness, every beeping watch and every popping joint. There are more laugh lines than Kevin realized, and when, at the climax, he karate chops the gun from Mr. McCallum’s hand, the hoots of applause cause his heart to pound. He could be a movie star, a comedian, Howie Mandel, Ralph Macchio, Harrison Ford, anyone, anyone at all.
As soon as Miss Vincent has been rescued and the principal is safely in handcuffs, Kevin reveals the final piece of the mystery: ‘Clint Fulkerson had overheard Mr. McCallum talking to himself about the plan,’ he explains, ‘and Mr. McCallum caught him. So, at lunch, he sleeping-powdered Clint’s drink so he wouldn’t expose him.’
That’s it, his last line, and he feels as if the stage is spinning on a turntable, the way his bed seemed to do whenever he wore himself out as a kid.
Stephen takes over again as the narrator: ‘Police walk out with Mr. McCallum. The police took Mr. McCallum to jail. I had succeeded and somehow knew this was only the beginning of my career as a detective.’ He dabs a ‘The End’ lightly onto the end of the sentence, like calamine lotion.
It takes the audience a moment to realize the play is over. Once they do, they erupt in cheers. And okay, Kevin’s not stupid, probably the applause is so loud because the performance ran longer than a sermon would, chopping a good fifteen minutes out of second period, but that’s all right, he doesn’t mind. You don’t clap because you’re overjoyed. You clap because it’s time to clap.
The rest of the day glides lightly over the treetops and to the ground. Kevin has a funny sensation of freedom and blamelessness, as if he is secretly at school on some dream of a Saturday, pretending along with everyone else that it’s important to attend class and obey the bells. The bulletin boards, the polished floors, even the fluorescent lights make him curiously happy. The whole giant building could cascade down around him in a sheet of water. It would hardly seem any less real. He wonders if this is how the others feel all year long. In English, Miss Vincent hams it up for the class, holding her wrist to her brow and calling Kevin ‘my rescuer.’ In geography, Coach Dale gives him one of his certificates with the drawing of the hand making the A-OK sign – Attaboys, he calls them, and ‘I’m awarding this particular Attaboy to Mr. Brockmeier for being our Playwriter of the Year.’ And that afternoon, in PE, before dressing out, when Kevin joins the rest of the kids by the thick purple and gold mat Velcroed to the wall beneath the scoreboard, Bateman makes a point of posing his head on his neck just so and presenting an enormous laugh, a big barking show-offy thing that goes on and on and on. Kevin can’t quite tell: is he laughing because he thinks Kevin embarrassed himself or because he decided he would laugh and by God he’s going to laugh?
By the next morning, the school is mostly itself again, with only a trace of yesterday’s weird agreeability. Even that disappears when Ethan shows Kevin the book he found: Another Fine Myth, with Skeeve the magician, Aahz the demon, Gleep the dragon, and the ivy-haired assassin Tananda, her short dress spray-painted onto her curves, the four of them marching along a cobblestone path between hillsides studded with castles and houses and evergreens.
Kevin can’t believe it. ‘Where did you unearth that?’
‘Lucky find. The B. Dalton in Park Plaza. They had the other three, too. Tananda is hot, isn’t she? Way hotter than I pictured her.’
‘Wait. There are three others?’
‘Yeah, mine and yours and Myth Conceptions, plus a new one called Hit or Myth, with Skeeve and Gleep and that same absentee unicorn on the cover. Except I bought this one, and it was their only copy. I’m waiting for my dad to give me my allowance, then I’m going to snag the others.’
The bell sounds, and a couple of latecomers slip into their desks. The door stutters closed on its hinged brass doorstop. As Mr. Garland takes roll, Ethan tucks the novel into his backpack, trading it for his notebook, which he opens to a new page and headlines with the date and the name of the class. That handwriting! So well-scrubbed, so meticulous. One time, in sixth grade, Thad said that it reminded him of a penis. It was such a strange remark to make, and yet so unexplainably true, that Kevin has never forgotten it. He wonders if he can convince his mom to drive him to Park Plaza tonight. It’s important, he’ll say. Mom, I have something I need to do. It’s important. It’s really important, Mom. I have someplace I need to go. I cannot get there fast enough.
Photograph by Jeff Eaton