Thick smoke clouded the interior of the vehicle. Stephen Harris and Johnny Walsh were seated up front. Cotter and Michael Harris were in the back. Cotter kept flicking his lighter on and off and staring into the flame.
"Cut that shit out," Harris said after a while. The noise had made his headache worse. Cotter did it a couple of more times before shoving the lighter into his coat pocket.
Michael handed the joint back up front to his brother. Harris took the last hit and threw the remnant onto the floorboard in front of him. He watched it burn for a moment before closing his eyes to quiet the throbbing in his head. The four sat for a while in stoned silence amidst the bluish haze.
"Whose car is this anyway?" Michael asked.
"Don't recognize it," Walsh answered after a moment.
Cotter began leafing through a stack of college-level textbooks he had found in the back seat.
"Must belong to one of them loser college kids here for car-eeer day," he said, sarcastically stretching out the word. He began tearing out pages in thick chunks and crumpling them into a small pile at his feet.
He stopped suddenly a moment later to snicker, "Hey Harris. There's a book back here about you."
The slight lisp caused by his two fully formed sets of front teeth made the name come out sounding a little bit like Harrith.
Although he had begun to nod off, Harris managed to raise his bleary eyes and look into the rear-view. Cotter was holding up one of the books. Harris quickly looked away. He couldn't read that good and anyway, it was even worse when he was stoned and had a headache and the letters were all backwards.
"Yeah? Whatsit say?" he asked, closing his eyes again.
"'Abnormal Psychology: Treatment and Effects'," Cotter answered. He and Walshie erupted with laughter.
Michael was smart enough to wait for his brother's reaction before daring to join in. From his perch in the backseat, he watched his brother slowly raise his head and open his bloodshot eyes to grin into the mirror. Cotter threw the textbook into the pile.
"Career day. Does it get any lamer than that?" Walsh asked.
Cotter tittered and began pounding his feet against the floorboards and drumming away on his knees, listening to the music in his head.
Michael looked out the window toward the school. The last lunch bell had already rung, which meant it was too late now for any of them to get back in without going through the office-note bullshit. Michael knew that none of them would even try, and the words were out of his mouth before he could even stop them.
"I dunno. People gotta do somethin with their lives don't they?" Michael answered.
He was thinking about how the four of them would split soon before spending the rest of the afternoon down in someone's basement, hanging out and getting even more wasted. He remembered foggily that things had been better for him until the sixth grade. Back then, he even had a few friends of his own. But that was the year they decided to hold his older brother back, his brother Stephen who was sixteen-years-old and still in the ninth grade.
"Shut the fuck up, ya homo," Walsh said, turning his head around to stare daggers at Michael in the back seat. Cotter abruptly stopped his drumming.
Michael watched his brother begin to raise his head, the movement as slow as an uncoiling snake. He turned slowly toward Walsh.
Walsh must have sensed something wrong too, because Michael saw that he remained frozen in that half-turned position until Stephen Harris spoke.
"Whaddyou call my brother?" he asked.
Michael watched Walsh curl his lips upward in imitation of a smile. He turned his head slowly toward the driver's seat to say, "Steve . . . come on man. You know I was just kiddin, right?"
He turned around to look at Michael.
"No hard feelings, right?" Walsh asked, his eyes imploring Michael to help get him out of this. And Michael probably would have too, but it happened way too fast.
Harris reached across the front seat with both hands and grabbed Walsh by the hood of his trademark white sweatshirt. Twisting it around his neck, he used the hood to push him hard against the door. His head made an ugly thump against the glass.
Walsh put his hands up in a defensive posture, but it was already too late. Harris sprang out of his seat like a jack-in-the-box and began to pummel him mercilessly. Michael's mouth remained open as he stared in mute horror at the sudden explosion of violence unfolding in the front seat.
And while he immediately recognized the sounds of screams and moans, Michael realized on some level that these sounded different somehow. It occurred to him a moment later that of course they would sound different, because this time, he wasn't the one making them. He felt rather than saw Cotter begin pounding his feet again and drumming away on his knees to music that only he could hear.
Tearing his eyes from the scene, Michael caught a glimpse of himself in the rear-view. His mouth was open. Silvery liquid dribbled out. He turned away again to look out the window, toward the school. Moving his hands against the glass, he pushed as hard as he could. It felt like he was drowning, and the only dry land for a mile was in that brick building just across the way.
"You didn't answer my QUESTION," he heard his brother shout. "What did you call my brother?" he repeated as he pounded away on his friend.
For his part, Walsh was determined to take the pummeling like a man. He knew the coppery taste in his mouth was coming from a now split lip. But whatever else was gonna happen, he knew one thing for sure: however many times Harris asked him, he sure as hell wasn't gonna repeat it.