Puma Year

Cody drank his cider and tried to think of disarming things to say. Tabitha leaned against a tree, radiating beauty and hostility. A breeze swept through. When red leaves glided down past Tabitha, he called her an autumn princess but she just sighed. Cody didn’t get it. She was acting as if he’d tricked her into coming to the cider mill after school, when in fact he had invited her and she had accepted. His mind clenched. He had planned to ask her to be his girlfriend, but obviously that was a bad idea unless her mood improved.

It didn’t. She winced at his questions, scowled at his jokes, and outright huffed when the mill’s spinning water wheel lightly sprayed her. What was her deal? Sometimes she was like a bantering best friend, other times a grudgy step-sister. When her mom picked her up, in a sleek sports car, Tabitha didn’t offer him a ride or even say goodbye. The car screeched off, like a getaway. Nice, real nice. Cody zipped up his jacket and started walking the dirt road home. Face it, life was pretty cruddy all around. His grades were garbage. Algebra, his most dreaded class, was beyond confusing. Not to mention the freaky dream he kept having. Still, on the crackling side, it was Friday. There was a kegger tomorrow night. Tabitha was sure to be there and sure to be in a better mood. And it was stellar walking weather, breezy and bright, yellow leaves flying like gusting gold.

Standing in the dark field, Cody swigged his beer and watched the crowd. Unknown to him, it was a last gasp, his final night of partying before everything started to change. Tabitha, blonde hair fluttering in the breeze, lips glossed in scarlet, was taking a selfie with a guy on the soccer team. Cody hoped to catch up to her later. Turning from the crowd, he began to tell his buddies about Double Indemnity, an old movie he’d just seen.

Ted abruptly started snickering. “Damn! Sucks to be you, Cody.”

“Oh, shit,” Bernie said. “Sorry, man. Look over there, by the fence.”

Cody looked. Tabitha and the soccer guy were kissing. Cody went to the keg and stayed there. The beer was rancid but plentiful. When the cops arrived and everyone fled to their cars, Cody refilled his cup and guzzled defiantly. Let them arrest him, he didn’t give a fuck. But then Bernie grabbed him. On the ride home, crammed in the backseat with four other guys, Cody thought about last spring. He and Tabitha had made out at a few basement parties and seemed on the verge of being a couple, but when he asked her to the spring dance and she said um, no thanks, he realized that the verge went no further. Was the bliss worth the burn? Yes! Her voice was like dreams. Her kisses were crackling. He had worried, though, about going further. Tabitha seemed like she’d be annoyed if he didn’t know what to do. One day she’d be his girlfriend, though. One day soon. Dropped at his trailer, Cody was nervous about seeming sober, but his mom, in the kitchen with a flask and her tarot deck, was drunker than he was. In his room, scarfing pretzels, fighting the spins, he watched a movie on his tablet and fantasized about writing his own movie.

That night he had The Dream again. Waking up afterwards, staring into the eerily echoing darkness, he prayed that life would settle down soon. But it was not to be.

Cody was staring at Tabitha two seats over when Mrs. Wood, his folklore and mythology teacher, paused her lecture and asked if he was paying attention. Cody quickly refocused and said yeah, of course, minotaurs, labyrinth mazes, but Mrs. Wood frowned skeptically and told him to stay after class. Stress blazed him. His friggin grades! Wasn’t it enough that tomorrow he had to go see the stupid guidance counselor about suck-ass algebra? After the bell rang and everyone left, Mrs. Wood shut the door, sat down in a chair across from him, then adjusted her green-frame glasses and locked him in her exasperated gaze.

“You’re wasting your time on Tabitha Smart,” she said.

Cody was thrown. “What do you mean?”

“She’s a pretty girl and deep down she probably has a good heart,” she said. “But she’s stuck up and selfish. Wake up! You could waste your whole semester, the whole year, sitting around pining for her. She’s a buzzard with sexy feathers. Let. Her. Go.”

“I won’t! I can’t,” he said, sounding more hostile than he meant to.

“Sure you can. Find another girl. There are three just in this class who would be thrilled to go out with you. No, don’t ask me who, figure it out. Well, okay, I’ll tell you this much: they smile when you talk, is how I can tell. Tabitha never smiles when you talk. Never, okay? I mean, I can see that you feel intensely drawn to her, but trust me, it’s a siren song. A trick song! I’m not saying she doesn’t like the attention. She definitely does. But she doesn’t like you the way you like her. Don’t be her fool, don’t waste your life waiting for her to change her mind. Okay, that’s it,” Mrs. Wood said, rising abruptly. “If you tell anyone I told you this, I’ll deny it and also flunk your ass. Which, I might add, you’re close to doing anyway. That’s another thing: do your damn homework.”

Mr. Devers, the sophomore guidance counselor, wasn’t what Cody had expected. He wasn’t young, exactly, but he wasn’t stodgy like most adult men. He slouched in his seat and wore a dress shirt but no tie. There was a framed poster of Citizen Kane on his office wall. For a while they just talked about movies. Cody even admitted that he wanted to write screenplays when he grew up. But then Devers abruptly changed the subject.

“So, Mr. Sutter,” he said, leaning forward at his desk. “How are you lately?”

Cody shifted in his chair. “Uh, I’m good.”

It wasn’t remotely true. He felt more fucked up than ever. He had tried to forget what Mrs. Wood had said about Tabitha being a trick song, but it was impossible. Obviously he liked Tabitha more than she liked him. If she felt the same way, they’d be friggin married by now. But even recognizing this, he was keenly distressed by the idea of letting her go. Even though he didn’t actually have her, she felt like all he had.

“You don’t sound good, frankly,” Devers said. “In any case, one thing that’s definitely not good is your F in algebra. But here’s my idea: let’s transfer you out of there and into a study hall. That way, you’ll have more time to focus on your other classes.”

Cody felt a sweeping, gushing relief. “We can do that?” he said.

“Sure,” Devers said. “You’ll still have to take math classes at some point, but we can worry about that later. And you have to get your other grades up. Can you do that?”

“Oh. Well, yeah, I think so,” Cody said, feeling less relieved.

“You’d better,” he said. “You’re a smart kid. There’s no reason you can’t get at least all Bs. That’ll give you college options, scholarship options. Believe me, you don’t want to be stuck in boonie Indiana forever. All right! Anything else bothering you?”

Cody hesitated. “Well, I mean, there’s something, but it’s, uh, off topic.”

“If it’s bothering you, it’s on topic. Go ahead.”

“I’ve been having this dream,” Cody said carefully. “Almost every day. Johnny Cash is in it—you know, the country singer? My dad and I used to listen to him. Anyway, in the dream, Johnny Cash is telling me, singing at me, actually, to take boxing lessons.”

Devers grinned. “Boxing lessons! Interesting. What do you make of it?”

“Dude, I don’t know! Maybe he’s, like, a guardian spirit? Maybe it’s a message?”

“Could be,” Devers said, surprisingly unfazed. “In any case, I say try it. A new discipline could really help you get on a better path. Which reminds me.” He sighed. “The police called the school about a keg party last weekend. Just a courtesy call, no one’s in trouble. But you were one of the kids they identified. Said you were wasted.”

Cody didn’t reply. A stenching darkness had enveloped him.

“I strongly advise you to stop drinking,” Devers said, his tone serious but not scolding. “Alcohol is a crooked calling, especially for a promising kid like you. Feels good in the moment, maybe, but screws you in the end. It’ll only get you in trouble.”

Cody stared. It was the first time someone who wasn’t stodgy, or drunk, or both, had warned him against drinking. “Parties would be boring,” he croaked lamely.

Devers frowned. “If the parties you go to aren’t fun unless you drink, you need to find better parties. In any case, wait at least until college to drink. You’ll be more mature, you’ll handle it better. Although, honestly, in my experience it never helped anyone at any point in their life. So maybe it’s best just to drop it outright.” Then, in an offhand way, though the words zapped and scalded Cody like high voltage, “It’s even riskier if one of your parents is an alcoholic. In that case, it’s more likely that you will be too.”

Cody’s boxing instructor was a young Asian woman named Sarah. She had a big smile and stellar biceps. Her studio was in a scuzzy strip mall a mile down from his trailer park, so he could walk there. Showing up for his first class on a brisk Saturday in November, he stood at the register and handed over the twenty his mom had begrudgingly given him.

Sarah, taking his money, shook her head gleefully. “A smallster! I love it.”

“Who you calling small?” he said, mock-growling, punching the air.

But he was the smallest. Also the only newbie. Every Saturday morning, while he clumsily struggled with the basics, his classmates slaughtered the beat bags and sparred in the ring like maniacs. It was strange, and frustrating, and exhausting. Story of his life these days. For the first time in almost a year, he was studying regularly and not pursuing Tabitha. At parties, when offered alcohol, he thought of Devers saying it was a crooked calling and declined. After blowing off a boxing class, he dreamed that Johnny Cash busted a guitar over his head. No skipping, son! Cash hollered. Part-time only gets you part good. Another layer of strange was the shooting at a school a few towns over. The shooter, a student, had used homemade wooden guns to bypass the district’s random metal detector tests; the guy killed several students and teachers before killing himself.

“I friggin suck!” Cody huffed, ripping off his gloves and hand wraps after an especially cruddy class. Then, impulsively, bare-fisted, he started slugging the brick wall.

Sarah rushed over. “Holy shit, what are you doing? Stop it,” she said. But then, seeing his tears, she whispered, “Whoa! Easy there, kid. You’re actually doing pretty well. And you’re brave as fuck to be here with all these adults.” She consulted her watch, then gave him her big smile. “Glove back up! Private lesson, no extra charge.”

It happened so fast. One snowy day, in study hall, Julie Beal asked Cody to go for hot chocolate after school. The date was dizzying. At the bake shop, he told Julie about Vertigo, his favorite movie, while she laughed and asked excited questions. Before her mom picked them up, they kissed outside in a dirty snowbank. Julie called him that night and said she’d always had a crush on him and couldn’t believe they were together now.

At school in the days after, they kissed all the time. Indoors in the warm bright halls, outside in the freezing dark courtyards. Sometimes just a quick kiss, other times a deliriously slurping make-out. As usual, Cody was nervous about the possibility of sex, but otherwise he felt crackling. In a handwritten note, Julie said she’d love him forever.

It went bad so quick. Ted and Bernie and the other guys, already confused by Cody’s not drinking, were further mystified. Ted was downright angry. Big-nose Julie? he’d say. Gross, man. Meanwhile, Tabitha Smart was suddenly sending him flirty texts. No offence to Julie, one text said, but you can do better. Kiss-blowing emojis followed. This was slightly exciting but mostly annoying. Where was all this emoji love when he’d been totally available? Ted got nastier. Ugly-girl lover, he’d call out, often in earshot of Julie. She winced sadly, just like she did when she saw Tabitha’s texts. Cody asked Ted to cut it out, but Ted just laughed, which really hurt. Dude was one of his oldest friends.

But it hurt more when Julie dumped him. Less than a month after the bake shop date, she emailed to say she didn’t think they were a match after all. At the desk in his room, Cody stared at the single curt paragraph on his laptop screen. Julie didn’t say it, but obviously the interference from Ted and Tabitha, and Cody’s failure to shut it down, hugely influenced her decision. He curled up on the floor and cursed himself for hours.

“It’s all crap,” Cody said, pacing in front of Mrs. Wood’s desk during her free period. “You said forget Tabitha, try other girls. So I did, I tried Julie. But what good did it do? None! It’s all shit. Sorry, I don’t mean to swear. But it’s all crap and it’s all my fault.”

Mrs. Wood shrugged. “You can swear. But look, not everything is meant to last.”

“Yeah, that’s for friggin sure. She said she’d love me forever, but it wasn’t even a month. I mean, what kind of forever is that? That’s not even, like, a while.”

“Well, but you had a girlfriend for a month. You treated Julie well and never lied to her. Don’t be a hellhound, Cody; don’t ever lie to girls. So, overall, isn’t this a win?”

Cody shrugged, then scowled. “But it’s not just her, it’s friggin everyone!” he railed. “Nobody gives a fuck about me. My dad never calls, my mom’s always drunk or out. My buddies make fun of me constantly. For studying, for not going to parties.”

Mrs. Wood irritably adjusted her green glasses. “Do I not give a fuck about you? And please stop this pacing about. It makes me edgy. Okay, listen. It’s not my place to discuss your parents, but they’re clearly feeding and housing you, so that’s something. As for the rest, you’re growing, you’re molting—you’re like a magic puma who’s grown wings and is learning to fly. It’s strange and it’s painful but it’s gonna be so worth it.”

Cody felt warmed. Such a crackling lady. “Thanks, Mrs. Wood, you’re the best. Way better than my friends. Ted’s such a jerk, I want to clobber him. But Sarah, that’s my boxing teacher, she says I should only use my skills outside class in an emergency.”

Mrs. Wood was smirking. “Well, heck, Cody. Do I even have to say it?”

“Have to say what?”

“Value yourself,” she said. “Make better friends.”

Cody went to see Mr. Devers again. To report back about his grades, which were decent, and to complain about his social life, which was crap. He mentioned that he was taking weekly boxing lessons and that Johnny Cash had stopped haunting his dreams, which was a relief, though he often wished someone could tell him what he should do with his life.

“Oh, I can tell you what you should do,” Devers said. “You should get started.”

Cody tensed, like an outlaw about to get handcuffed. “On what?” he asked.

“Screenwriting. If you’re really serious, get started now. Start reading scripts, learn the format. And start reading film history and theory, not just movie reviews.”

“But I didn’t mean I needed, like, another project. I don’t even have time—”

“Come on, man,” Devers said. “You just told me you’re ditching your old crowd. You have the time. Take charge, build your future. And if you love this stuff, it won’t even seem like work. Then, in a year or so, try writing your own screenplay.”

Cody was stunned. It framed life in a new way. In his mind, a career dream was a wish you fantasized about, as opposed to a goal you worked toward. It had never really occurred to him that, even now, there were things he could do to cultivate his own dream.

“The arts are brutal,” Devers went on, with a startling, sledgehammer intensity. “You’d think they’d be these cozy havens, but in fact they’re ruthlessly competitive. Movies especially. And I won’t lie to you: even with talent and an early start, you still might not succeed. I know people who tried like heck and it never happened. But in that case at least you’ll know you did your best and maybe you can pivot to a career in film journalism.” Then, relaxing, grinning, “Don’t get me wrong: friends are important and you’ll make new ones. But if you plan smartly, there’s time enough for everything.”

In April, desperate for friends, Cody started going to the school’s Sober Students events, which weren’t really anti-drug meetings but just afterschool hangouts with snacks and board games. Pretty fun stuff, actually. After one event, Nicole Arbor, a cherubic, dark-haired junior, wearing a satiny red shirt, offered him a ride home in her rusty station wagon. When a Johnny Cash song came on the car radio, Cody nearly jumped. Shit! Was it a sign? A nudge? When they pulled up to his trailer, he nervously asked Nicole if she wanted to come inside. In his room, she sat down on his bed while he took the desk chair.

Nicole frowned at his bedside book. “Men, Women, and Chainsaws?”

“Oh, yeah, that,” he said. “It’s a book on film theory. I got it from the library.”

They talked about movies for a while. Her smile was like cinnamon. Her laugh was like hymns. Who knew that a sober girl could be this spellbinding? Maybe heaven, hushed and pristine, had accidentally opened and spilled her down into this noisy, dusty, bumblefuck town. Cody was swarmed by nerves, but his mom wouldn’t be home from her astrology group for hours and who knew when he’d get a chance like this again.

“Are you an angel?” he said, taking the plunge, but also actually wondering.

Nicole became very still. Then she smiled. “Maybe,” she whispered. “Come see.”

He sat down next to her on the bed. Her perfume was like crushed plums. He felt electrified but awkward. He was on the verge of saying something that hinted at vast personal expertise, to counter her probable image of him as a fumbling rookie, but then remembered he should never lie. “I don’t have much experience,” he said instead.

She laughed slyly. “That’s about to change. But it’s just tonight; sorry, but I can’t date a sophomore. We can’t go all the way, but there’s lots else, right? Now come here.”

On the day of the shooter, a warm sunny spring day, Cody entered the school lobby trying to count his blessings but mostly just tallying up his grievances. He had become a decent boxer but no one knew or cared. His dad hadn’t called in months. Worst of all, Nicole Arbor meant what she’d said; it was just the one time. That night in his room was glorious, and highly instructive, but his gratitude was massacred by his desire for more.

Arriving at his locker, he said hi to Greta Mertz, who had the locker next to his.

Ted appeared, loudly. “Greta, whaddaya say? Are we going out soon or what?”

Cody shook his head. Ted pulled this dumb-ass crap a few times a week. Greta, a pale, unsmiling girl with pink and purple hair, always just ignored him. Cody did, too.

“Seriously, Greta, I’d totally do you,” Ted went on, then gave her the once-over with his eyes. “I mean, you know, as long as the room was really dark.”

“She’s my friend!” Cody yelled, surprising himself. “Leave her alone.” He raised his fists in warning. What the hell. Johnny Cash would approve even if Sarah didn’t.

Ted was silent for a long moment. “Sure, dude, whatever,” he said finally, starting to walk away. “I wouldn’t wanna come between you and your new ugly girlfriend.”

Greta regarded Cody glumly. “We’re not friends, though,” she said. “You say hi to me, big whoop. It took you all year to stick up for me.” She glared, then moped off.

He didn’t really have any friends. At lunch in the cafeteria, today as usual, he sat at a table with a few mumbly guys from Sober Students. Bernie, the only one of the old crew Cody still talked to, stopped by the table once a week or so to catch up for a few minutes. Digging into his pizza slice, Cody reflected that his life was more focused, less haphazard, than it used to be. He was in a good groove with both his schoolwork and his extra-curricular film studies. For his birthday his mom had given him the Hocus Pocus screenplay. A favorite movie of hers, not his, and the copy was used and stank of vinegar, but hey, he’d take it. Tabitha Smart had shrunk in his mind, from a goddess he couldn’t live without to a beautiful girl, scuzzy on the inside, that he had once been stupidly obsessed with. Still, despite the progress, it was a lonely, confusing time. It reminded him of sixth grade, when he and his mom had first moved here and he didn’t know anyone. And how the fuck was he supposed to know a trick song, or a crooked calling, from an actual good thing? He would have to ask Mrs. Wood and Mr. Devers about that.

Fourth-hour geography, his next class, started out deceptively mellow.

Ashima Thakur, seated in front of him, turned around before class started and regarded him like a perplexing problem. “Cody Sutter,” she said. “You’re different lately. Less of a jerk. But also weirder. I mean, Sober Students? Boxing lessons?”

“Just trying new things,” he said, surprised that she was tracking his year.

“I think I like the new you, but I’m not sure yet,” she said. Then, softer, more secretly, “Hey. Remember when we kissed in eighth grade? You were a bad kisser.”

He powered through his embarrassment. “Well, uh, but that was the old me. I didn’t have much practice. The new me is better. So if you ever wanna try again…”

Ashima giggled, then made a face. “Hard pass.”

When Mrs. Harris started lecturing, about European borders, Cody focused only slightly. He looked around the room. On his right, Fred King was drawing team logos on his folder. On his left, Peter Meeks was scowling weirdly, a sleek black duffel bag at his feet. Cody regarded the bag admiringly; he could use something like that for his gym gear. He wouldn’t lug it around to his regular classes, though. In fact, why would Peter?

Cody felt a sudden putrid chill. His hands numbed. When Peter reached down and quietly unzipped the bag, Cody felt like an exposed nerve. His breathing hitched. Peter retrieved a wooden object, definitely gun-shaped, a sort of miniature assault rifle, and placed it on his lap beneath his desk. Then he retrieved another one. Cody gulped. Maybe they were just replicas? Harmless woodshop projects? No, stop! This was real. This was now. Feeling queasy, tearing up, Cody breathed and prayed, breathed and prayed.

When Peter rose from his desk, and started to aim the guns, Cody was already up. He lunged at Peter, whacking down on his hands. The guns clattered to the floor. Then Cody stepped in with a right hook and a left uppercut. Smooth and swift, just like Sarah taught him. His fists met fleshy, sharp bone. Gasping, Peter stumbled into the desks around him, then tripped to the floor. The class squawked. Fred King, who had rushed over and kicked away the guns, stood over Peter in an exaggerated guarding stance.

It was a weird scene. Everyone besides Fred and Peter scrammed to the back wall, as if there were a center sinkhole. Mrs. Harris announced that school security were on the way. Fred was accepting high-fives. Cody, nerves blazing, shook his head. It figured. Apparently it had happened so fast, no one fully saw it. His parents, he realized, wouldn’t hear about his role in it unless he told them himself. Then he saw Ashima staring at him.

“Dude, you saved us,” she mouthed.

Cody shrugged. He moved to an open section of the back wall. Inside, though, he felt a cleansing glow. His legs trembled, then buckled. He gripped the wall for support. Don’t scream! Oh, try not to cry. It was like his image of himself, friggin murky at best, had unassailably brightened. Crumbling to the floor, weeping, he saw that it had been a pretty good year after all, and that probably he was just as worthwhile as anyone. ###

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