Jeremiah Hartman appeared from the first cafeteria booth and stopped me in the hall. "Come with me," he said, taking me by the thumb.
He led me down the main corridor, past offices and lockers, kids sitting straight-legged against the wall. At the entrance to my first period classroom, Jeremiah Hartman bowed and opened the door.
"What's this?" I asked.
He winked. "A good way to start the day."
Last year, in the first and only conversation we had, Jeremiah Hartman told me he liked my flannel, said they looked good on girls, then asked me who I thought he looked like. I paused, took an inventory of all the students and teachers in the building. "Yourself," I said.
"No one famous?"
I shrugged. "Not that I can think of."
Jeremiah Hartman had a step-brother named Jeremiah Slightly. Jeremiah Slightly stood six feet five and three quarters. Jeremiah Hartman made five three and five eighths on his tip-toes, weighted eighty-nine pounds on a fat day.
"Thank you," he said, and turned a cartwheel in the hall.
Now, as I stood looking at rows of half empty desks and posters of algebraic equations on the wall, I decided that Jeremiah Hartman did indeed look like someone besides himself. Jeremiah Hartman looked like Kurt Cobain on Prozac.
I'd seen its effects before. My own mother took it, kept the pills in their original bottle, the label proudly displayed in the kitchen window for even the mailman to see. When I protested their presence as a work of art, she said, "You don't know how many people I've met because of these things," and I understood then where she found the series of men she brought home night after night.
When my own friends came over and shook the cylinder and peered into the plastic coating and asked me if it's as good as everyone says it is, I told them all the same thing: It hasn't made me happy yet. But looking at Jeremiah Hartman, two inches taller and twenty pounds heavier, with his eyes on high beam, I wondered if my answer would be different next time.
"Thanks," I said, "but my day already started, and it didn't start good."
"I know." Jeremiah Hartman gave my thumb back, readjusted the pack sliding off my shoulder.
"You know? How do you know?"
He shrugged. "You looked defeated."
I stared at him, wondered if Prozac gave people supernatural sniffing powers, enabled them to smell the weak and wounded. "Great," I muttered, and shut the door behind me.
It was only after he stopped me two weeks later, in the doorway of The Underground—a kid's club since the owner lost his liquor license—and said, "I think you should let me help you," that I asked him how long he'd been medicating himself.
He laughed until he lost control of his knees, and from the floor, he sucked in a breath and said, "I only meant you should let me help you avoid my ex-girlfriend. She's after you because I like you and not her."
"Oh," I said, and something inside me felt like love.
The next time Jeremiah Hartman took my thumb, he led me across the ice-glazed parking lot and sat me inside Jeremiah Slightly's car. Outside, his ex-girlfriend licked the window next to Jeremiah Hartman's head.
"A magpie crapped on that window yesterday," he said. We laughed and she pressed the rear of her jeans against the door crack and told us to "eat this."
After she left, Jeremiah Hartman reached for the tape case, slid a cassette into the slot. From the speakers, the grit of Alice in Chains broke through.
"I didn't think you'd listen to this kind of music," I said.
"Why? D'you not like it?"
"I do," I said. "I just thought it was a little, you know, depressing, for your taste."
Jeremiah Hartman leaned forward, turned the volume down. "Life is depressing sometimes."
I looked at Jeremiah Hartman, at the streetlamp and bare aspens playing hide and seek with his face as if they knew duality was inevitable, that light couldn't exist without the shadow. "But you're always happy."
With his customary smile, Jeremiah Hartman said, "What other way is there to be?"
"Depressed," I said, and my voice bounced off the metal doors, bit the windows fogged with breath. "Sad, annoyed, disturbed, angry, bored, frustrated. Take your pick. Oh. Oh, wait, I'm sorry. You're probably not capable of having those feelings anymore." I opened the car door, thinking I'd stumbled across my mother in the form of . . . a boy.
"Casey," he said, "remember last year when I asked you who I looked like?"
Keeping both feet on the concrete, I swiveled my body and faced him. "Yeah, about that. I changed my mind. I know exactly who you look like."
"Kurt Cobain. On Prozac." I lifted myself from Jeremiah Slightly's car and slammed the door behind me.
From his window, Jeremiah Hartman called, "I just wanted you to know something."
"And what's that?"
"I think you look like yourself, too."
Something flipped inside me and I turned around, saw Jeremiah Hartman's face craned out the window. I wanted to thank him, turn a cartwheel in the parking lot, tell him that one time I told my mother the difference between you and me is that I don't think happiness should be contrived, forced down, swallowed. Instead, I crossed my arms, said, "But you don't," and waited for him to tell me I was wrong.
His response came three days later, in the form of a skinny sketchbook shoved into the crack of my locker. On the first page, three words—where's my miracle. Inside, Jeremiah Hartman had taped pictures of trees—burned, scarred, topped, chopped, logged, diseased trees. And at the end lay one tiny seed, taped to the center of the page.
"What the hell is this?" I asked, slapping the sketchbook in front of him where he sat in the first cafeteria booth with his brother and a carrot-topped girl I'd seen before but couldn't say where.
"I have no idea," he said. "I got it from this therapist my mom made me go see after my parents got divorced. She made me pick the tree I most identified with and then she told me that she would be my seed."
Jeremiah Hartman flipped to the last page of the book, peeled the tape back and flicked the seed across the room. "You want to know what I told her?"
"I don't know. Do I?"
"I told her she was full of shit."
I smiled then and realized I'd been wrong—Jeremiah Hartman did not look like Kurt Cobain on Prozac. Jeremiah Hartman looked like me.
The night Jeremiah Slightly drove me home—Jeremiah Hartman next to me in the back, the front seat occupied only by our coats—we'd sat on the stairs of The Underground and talked until the metal 'closed for business' gate latched and locked. Jeremiah Hartman's leg converged with mine, one cloud drifting into another, the surrounding air pressing upward, out, a sigh waiting to be exhaled.
Out front, Jeremiah Slightly pulled the car up to the curb, idled the engine. Light from the kitchen rained upon the porch steps and I thought: Swell, she's home. Then: I wonder who's she's with this time.
Three windows down, the dusty glow of my brother's dimmer light peeked through the blinds. Ten years old and still afraid of the dark, of what he'd find, or wouldn't, if he rummaged through its shadows.
Daniel spent most of his time six doors down, at Mom's parents, where she dumped him when she went out. Every other weekend, when Dad came home from his bachelor brother's and his job in Ridgeline, three hours north, Daniel and I would take refuge in his one bedroom apartment, huddled together under blankets, eating caramel corn on the couch.
Daniel's dimmer light meant one thing: Mom was home, and she was alone.
"Thanks for the ride," I said, pushing the front seat forward and unlatching the door.
Jeremiah Hartman climbed out behind me.
"I'll see you Monday." I grabbed my flannel from his hand and ran for the door, hoping Mom wouldn't notice I was home, that I'd been dropped off by a boy. But she did, and she had.
"Is that a boy from your class?" she asked.
"I'm in high school, Mom. I have several classes."
"You barely saw him."
"He looks like a rock star."
Not anymore he doesn't, I wanted to say. Not since he flicked the seed, shunned the miracle.
"Is he your boyfriend?"
I rolled my eyes, filled a glass with ice cubes and took one in my mouth, sucked it till my teeth hurt.
"It's okay if he is. I want grandkids you know."
"I'm fifteen," I said.
"Well, not now, of course. In a couple of years."
"In a couple of years I'll be seventeen."
"Your father and I married when I was only eighteen," Mom said. "You came along shortly afterwards."
I dumped the ice down the sink, ran hot water over the cubes, watched them melt, shift into irregular shapes. "I don't want to hear about it."
"You should hear about it. The first thing I learned when I started treatment was the importance of communication."
I groaned, long and loud. "Spare me the psychiatric treatment."
"Depression runs in the family, Casey.
Wrong, I thought. Depression runs in the world. As a superficial reaction to a situation that seems without hope but never is. As the lazy man's way out, followed by an even lazier solution.
"Your father and I divorced because we didn't communicate," she said.
"Mom." I slammed the cup on the counter. "I'm fifteen. I'm not having babies. I'm not getting married."
"I'm just making a point. If you're going to be dating . . . "
"I'm not dating," I yelled. From down the hall, Daniel told us to pipe down, he's trying to sleep.
"See. This is exactly my point. Your father drove me away by acting exactly this way."
I chucked the cup, sent it tumbling along the linoleum. It bounced and stopped at my mother's feet. "You're so far in denial," I said. For as long as I could remember, my mother would shout at my father as he followed her around the house, asking her to talk to him, just talk to him. At night, after she locked the bedroom door, he'd curl up on the couch with three cats on top of him for a blanket.
The day my father decided he'd had enough, he picked Daniel and me up from school and took us to see his new apartment. "I don't want you to be scared," he said, "but I'm going to be living here now, without your mother." Later, when I overheard a telephone conversation between my mom and her mom, I discovered what delivered the final TKO—she'd cheated on him. Twice. With two different men.
"You blame all your problems on other people, and you expect something else to fix them," I told her.
In my room, I pulled the covers over my head and screamed in secret, my voice muffled by goose down and postnasal drip. I promised myself that I'd never be that kind of person, and I promised myself I'd never let someone do that to me. Never never never, I chanted, until my tongue dried, and I could no longer hear my mother's voice in the background, talking to Max, David, some new guy named Josiah.
"I'm just meeting new people that's all," she'd said when I told her she made me sick. "Some of them just happen to be men."
"All of them happen to be men."
She shrugged. "Your father left a hole in me."
I wanted to say: You left a hole in you. You left a hole in him. You left a hole in me and Daniel and Grandma and Grandpa and you even left a hole in the rose garden downtown when you buried that hairball you found in the armpit of your coat. But I hadn't said any of those things. I only stuck my finger down my throat and pretended to gag.
The light went off in the hall, and as she walked by, I yanked the covers off and yelled: Never. N-E-V-E-R. And I realized then where I'd seen the carrot-topped girl sitting with Jeremiah Hartman and his brother in the first cafeteria booth. I'd watched as she licked the window next to Jeremiah Hartman's head, stuck the butt of her jeans against the door of Jeremiah Slightly's car and told us to "eat this."
Never. I said it again, out loud, in the still blackness of my room.
On Monday, I told Jeremiah Hartman that I felt like that tree in his book, the one that grew too close to the house, the fence, the neighbor's shed, had been topped and de-limbed, eventually cut down because of its tendency to spread into unwanted places. Jeremiah Hartman nodded his head, and for the last time, he held my thumb, pulled it down the hall, past offices and lockers and kids sitting straight-legged, and at the entrance to my first period classroom, Jeremiah Hartman bowed and opened the door.