Spotting her favorite victim exiting through the main door of the school building, Kim Parker extended her forefinger and thumb at right angles to each other to form an 'L.' Putting her hand to her forehead, she shouted, "Loser!"
Dan looked over at her and shook his head in disgust. It was their last day of high school and Kim Parker, bitch extraordinaire, was continuing her efforts to make his life miserable. For twelve years he had put up with her snide remarks, public insults, and rude acts. Now that time was coming to an end. School was ending and he'd never have to be near her again. Letting his irritation show in his voice, he said, "Grow up. We're not in high school any more."
"I don't even know why they are letting you graduate. You can't even read," Kim said with disdain in her voice. She was heading off to college in September with visions of a very bright future. She was confident that she could use her good looks to get anything she wanted. As far as she was concerned, he was going to end up a janitor or something equally as low. The sooner she could get that loser out of her life, the better.
"I can read," Dan muttered while turning away so that she couldn't see how much her words hurt him. Too many years had been spent as the slow kid in class before someone realized that he had Dyslexia. He had hoped that he would make it through one day of school without having someone remind him that he had problems reading. Almost without exception, it was Kim who made a point of making him feel stupid.
The root of the problem on Kim's part was that they shared the same last name. Once in first grade, one of the kids had accused her of being stupid because her twin brother was stupid. She didn't remember the episode, but the idea that someone might think that they were related continued to embarrass her. Every time that he had been called upon in class to read aloud, she had felt humiliated by his stammering uncertain recitation. She hated him for it and that hate ran deep.
The years together in school had not lessened her animosity towards him. Her hatred of him grew every time someone asked if they were related. In every yearbook, his picture appeared right next to hers. In fact, his name appeared right before hers. In the graduation ceremony he would walk the stage in front of her. He always came first and, as far as she was concerned, he was the stupid one.
Kim crossed her arms and said, "It's not fair. I actually had to learn something to graduate and they just passed you through school because you're stupid. Everyone knows that they had to pass you or your parents would have sued."
"Shut up," Dan said. Despite his hard work to learn the material, Dan actually believed that he had been passed through school. The truth of the matter was far different than either Kim or Dan realized. Dan had better grades than Kim in almost all of their classes. Although the teachers had often given him oral exams, the grades he earned had represented his real understanding of the material.
Exiting from the school, Tom took one look at Dan and knew that Kim had been harassing him again. As far as he was concerned, there was no excuse for her behavior. She was the most popular girl at school and she didn't need to cement her social position by making Dan miserable. Pasting a false smile on his face, he said, "Hey, it's the slut. Have you been spending much time on your knees? I've got a twenty. How about a blowjob?"
"I'm going to kill you and your loser friend one of these days," Kim shouted furious at the accusation. He often accused her of using sex to get what she wanted. It was close enough to the truth that it infuriated her. The only one in school who could get under her skin that fast was Tom. There had been a time when they had been friends and had definitely been moving to being better than just friends, but that was history.
"Oh, go ply your trade elsewhere," Tom said looking at her with disgust.
Kim glared at him unable to come up with a retort that would hurt. She stomped her foot and said, "You think you're better than me."
"I am," Tom said with a smile.
Giving him a look that conveyed exactly what she thought of his social standing, Kim said, "You are so pathetic. You dress in Grand Mart clothes, drive an old clunker of a car, and wear black frame glasses. Your mother even cuts your hair. You and Retard are nothing but a pair of losers."
"You're right about my clothes, car, glasses and my haircut. That doesn't change the fact that we're still better than you," Dan said with the calm assurance that came from the fact that he actually believed it.
"God, I hate you," Kim replied stamping her foot on the ground.
Patting Dan on the shoulder, Tom said, "Let's get out of here. School is over as far as I'm concerned and the sooner we're away from the bitch the better."
As they walked away to where their cars were parked, Dan said, "I don't understand it. There was a time when you were friends with her. Everyone thought that she was going to be your girlfriend. She was madly in love with you. You could have fucked her. Why didn't you?"
Tom didn't want to talk about what had happened to break up his friendship with Kim. Shrugging his shoulders, he answered, "She isn't a very nice person. Why would I want to have sex with her?"
"She's the prettiest girl at school," Dan answered. He glanced back at Kim who had been joined by her circle of followers. The young woman was very attractive and had almost every guy at school wrapped around her little finger. One of the few exceptions was Tom.
"Would you have sex with her if you had the chance?" Tom asked looking at his friend.
"No. I don't like her," Dan answered. He was actually afraid that if he were to ever be in the position of having sex with her that it would end up being closer to assault than making love. He could just see himself getting hauled off to jail for abusing her.
"Same here," Tom said with a grin. Knowing that Dan was looking for work, he asked, "So, how is the hunt for a job going?"
"I found a job in construction last night. I start work tomorrow," Dan answered feeling a little embarrassed about the kind of work he'd be doing. A lot of the kids in school were headed off for college. Most of the people in his middleclass neighborhood looked down on people who earned a living with their hands. Growing up in that environment, Dan felt ashamed about what he considered his only option for the future. He believed that it was his fate in life to be manual labor. College wasn't really a choice for someone who required three months to read a single book.
"Do you really want to do that?" Tom asked.
"Not really, but there just aren't that many alternatives. I can't go to college. Hell, I can't even be a prostitute. No one is going to pay me to sleep with them," Dan answered with a dismissive shrug of his shoulders.
"Don't say things like that. It's not true. Plenty of guys will pay you for sex," Tom said shaking his head.
"Don't even say that," Dan said in a disgusted voice.
Laughing at Dan's reaction, Tom said, "I'm serious though about you having alternatives."
Tom was heading to college, but hadn't decided upon a major yet. It was a close race among Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics. Dan had no doubts that Tom could major in any of those subjects. He was the smartest kid in the school and that was not an opinion based on his grades. Tom was the only person in school to have a perfect score on the SAT. Dan asked, "Have you decided on a major yet?"
"Not yet. I figure I don't have to declare my major for at least a year. The first year of all three programs is basically identical. I've got to take Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, English, and History. I hope I'll know enough to make a choice after taking the introductory courses," Tom said with a shrug of his shoulders.
"I'm sure that you can major in all of them. I can just see you earning three degrees at the same time," Dan said with a grin. He knew that people didn't do things like that.
The pair of friends walked to the parking lot talking and teasing each other. Reaching their cars, Tom stopped at the trunk of his car and opened it. He reached in and pulled out a stack of papers. Handing them to Dan, he said, "I downloaded some articles from the web last night and thought you might want to read them."
Dan took the papers from Tom and looked over them. The pages were held together by thick heavy clips. There were three articles and they were thick enough to be books. It took him a minute to puzzle out the words without the colored overlay that helped him read. Taking his time in making out the words, he read the titles aloud, "The Facts Of Life. The Pursuit of Happiness. Take Control of Your Life. What is this?"
"We've talked in the past about what we wanted out of life. I ran across these articles on the web and realized that they captured the essence of what we've talked about. In fact, they go way beyond what we've talked about. I thought you might want to read them," Tom said. He knew that Dan struggled to read, but his friend had always read anything he had given him. Dan wasn't dumb; he just had a hard time reading.
"Why?" Dan asked with a puzzled frown.
Hoping that his friend would take his advice, Tom answered, "I thought they might help give you a direction in life. We have been drifting through life without a real goal. I've been reading them and find that they are helping me organize my thoughts on what I want to do in life."
Tom's comment about drifting through life wasn't entirely accurate. For the past six years, Dan had focused on getting through school. Having achieved that goal, he didn't know what he wanted to do. He rolled the papers into a tube and said, "I guess you're right; I am drifting through life. I just don't see the breadth of opportunities for me that you have. I mean, you're the smartest guy I know. You can do anything. Me, I'm not all that smart."
Shaking his head, Tom pointed in the direction from which they had just come and said, "Kim is a pretty woman, but she's never learned how to be an attractive person. She's a bitch, good looking, but a bitch just the same. I'm a smart guy, but I've never learned how to be intelligent. I'm lazy, smart, but lazy. You've worked hard to get through school and you've learned how to deal with nasty people. Between you, Kim, and me... well, you're the one that is most likely to accomplish something."
"You're just saying that," Dan said dismissing the comment. Tom was always saying things like that to him. He swore that Tom had decided that his role in life was to build up his self confidence.
"No I'm not. You're a good guy," Tom said. So many people dumped on Dan, but his friend never got nasty back. He was always helpful even to the people that treated him poorly. He knew that if Dan found Kim Parker by the side of the road with a flat tire that he'd stop to help her. It was just the way Dan was wired.
"Well, I don't believe it," Dan said.
"Just read those articles," Tom said gesturing to the roll of papers that Dan was holding in his left hand. He hoped that they would help his friend find a direction in his life. Once he left for school, there would be no one to help Dan when he was down.
"Okay," Dan said with a frown. It would take him two months, maybe more, to read that much material, but he'd do it for Tom. Last summer Tom had insisted that he read Watership Down. It had taken him all summer to read it, but he had enjoyed the story tremendously.
Satisfied that Dan would do as he promised, Tom said, "I better get along now. I've got to get to my job at the video store."
"Can you come over to my house tomorrow?" Dan asked.
"I can't. I've got tons of family coming to watch me walk the stage. My grandparents are coming in this evening. My Aunt and Uncle are coming tomorrow. My parents are taking us all out to dinner Saturday to celebrate. I won't be free to go much of anywhere until Sunday night," Tom said.
Tom's family was really good at celebrating occasions. Tom's eighteenth birthday party had lasted three days since it involved trips to three different amusement parks. As Tom's best friend, Dan had been invited along. He had really enjoyed that little adventure. Knowing that Tom was going to be very busy, he said, "I understand."
"However, my parents are throwing a little pre-graduation ceremony celebration on Friday night. Why don't you come over?" Tom asked with a grin. He knew that Dan wouldn't be able to refuse the invitation. His parents threw really great parties.
"Wild horses couldn't keep me away," Dan said with a smile.
Pleased that Dan was coming to the party, Tom said, "Outstanding. I'll see you there."
Dan watched Tom drive off in his car feeling a little envious. It wasn't the bad kind of envy; it was more in the line of wishful thinking. He wished that his life was as problem-free as Tom's life. He knew that Tom had his problems, but they seemed minor in comparison to his problems.
Dan had never had the opportunity to take a part-time job after school. He didn't have time for after school clubs, sports, or scouts. He spent the whole time between getting home from school in the afternoon and going to bed at night working on homework. He was thin and pasty white from spending so much time studying.
Getting through school had not been easy. It was hard for Dan to keep up with his schoolwork. A teacher would assign ten pages of reading and he'd have to spend three hours struggling through it. Writing an essay took forever. His spelling was so bad that even the spell checker on the computer couldn't help him. His sister sometimes joked that he was a random character generator when typing on the computer.
Dan's life wasn't totally horrible. The one positive influence that made his life bearable was Tom. At the darkest times of his life, Tom had been there for him. He couldn't count the number of times that Tom had stopped by his house after getting off of work to proofread his papers. Tom always stood up for him when others made fun of him.
Dan never understood why they had become friends. They were as different as night and day. Tom was the smartest kid in school. He was active in a half dozen school clubs. He was popular. As far as Dan could tell, Tom was everything that he wasn't. Dan had a hard time reading. He wasn't active in any school programs and he definitely wasn't popular. He was the school dummy and nobody wanted to be seen with him; nobody with the exception of Tom.
The friendship started when Dan was in eighth grade. One day during lunch, Tom came over to where Dan was eating alone at the table and started a conversation. Dan even remembered what the conversation was about. Tom had asked his opinion about what kind of car he should get when he was old enough to drive. Dan had talked about sports cars, but then said that buying one of them would probably be a mistake. Dan had suggested a good heavy sedan with lots of metal to protect him in case of an accident. In hindsight, it was a pretty lame conversation, but it was important to Dan. It was the first time that anyone had ever asked him for his opinion. From that simple beginning, a friendship had grown.
He glanced down at the roll of papers in his hand wondering why Tom had given them to him. It didn't matter, he knew that he'd read them just because Tom had asked him to do it. Reading Watership Down last summer had doubled his reading speed. That had helped him through his senior year of high school.
Sighing, Dan walked to his car — a beat up heavy sedan with lots of metal to protect him in case of an accident. It was time for him to head home. He was going to miss Tom when he went off to college.
Friday evening Dan staggered home from work looking forward to a weekend in which to recover. Despite the fact that he had been picking up and carrying things all week, today had been particularly bad. They were doing some reconstruction on a house and had pulled down a decorative brick wall that was four feet high and forty feet long. His job was to pick up the bricks and throw them in a dumpster. The wall had come apart in chunks of four to eight bricks in a chunk. When all of the bricks had been thrown into the dumpster, he had to pick up other debris around the construction site. He had filled half of the huge dumpster in one day. His hands had blisters on top of blisters. His back hurt and he could barely lift his arms. The sun had been brutal on his pale skin.
Wanting to make a good impression on his boss, Dan had really hustled the entire week. His boss had sent him to work site to help out a crew that was short a man. It seemed to him that no matter what he did or how hard he worked, the man running the crew was always yelling at him. It was so bad that when he had taken a break to use the porto-potty, the man had stood outside yelling at him that he was there to work and not to crap. After finishing his business, Dan had come out and gone right to work without comment.
Although Dan didn't know it, the man running the crew had been suitably impressed. He also figured that the gung-ho spirit wouldn't last long. Experience had taught him that praising hustle only led to the person losing that spirit even quicker. It was better to establish early that he expected the people working for him to work hard.
Stepping into the house, Dan found his mother in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on dinner. They were having spaghetti that night and the aroma of her homemade sauce filled the air. Just the smell of it made his mouth water. He said, "Hi Mom."
"Hi, Dan. How was work?" she said keeping her eyes focused on cutting the tomatoes for the dinner salad.
"It was a rough day. I carried trash to the dumpster all day. I'm exhausted and can barely move," Dan said.
"Well, you better hurry and take a shower. Dinner is almost ready," she said looking over at him. The smile on her face was replaced with concern. The hours in the sun had given him a bad case of sunburn. She said, "There's some cream for your face in medicine cabinet."
"Sure," Dan said wondering why she mentioned a cream for his face. Dan stopped by his bedroom to put on his bathrobe before going into the bathroom that he shared with his little sister, Diana. He looked in the mirror shocked at what he saw. His face was bright red. He muttered, "Oh, that's going to hurt."
Stepping under the warm water felt like heaven. He felt the grime of a hard day's work run off his body. The water at his feet was a dirty gray, but Dan didn't notice. He had his eyes closed and enjoyed the feel of the water running over his sore muscles. He didn't know how long he stood there, but after a while he became aware that the water was becoming cold. He finished washing and stepped out of the shower to dry off.
Putting on his bathrobe, he returned to his bedroom to dress for dinner. Removing his bathrobe, he sat on the edge of his bed trying to decide what he should wear. It was almost too much work to walk to his closet to get some clean clothes. He sprawled backwards on his bed and closed his eyes for a moment. The moment turned into three hours.
It was after nine when Dan woke. After getting dressed, he slipped out of his bedroom hoping that he could boil some noodles and reheat the spaghetti sauce. As he approached the end of the hall he heard his mother say, "He really looked awful when he came home from work."
His father said, "He's not cut out for physical work. He didn't even play sports in school. He's too small and he's going to get hurt."
"You know how he is. He won't give up until the job is done," his mother said.
"He has to quit that job. It'll kill him," his father said knowing that Dan wouldn't quit. Dan would work himself to death if that was what the job required.
"What will he do instead?" his mother asked.
"I don't know. I don't know what we're going to do with Dan. He can barely read so college is out of the question."
"Honey, he'll figure out something. He's not stupid," his mother replied.
"I know that, but we have to face facts. He's never going to amount to much in today's world. Thirty years ago he could have been a machinist and made a great living. Today, you have to have a college degree to get by. I wouldn't be surprised if he ended up being a ditch digger," his father said. When he was a kid, the threat for someone who was an underachiever was that they were going to end up a ditch digger. Since that wasn't a job anymore, he wondered what the modern equivalent was.
Dan didn't need to see his father to know what the expression on his face was. It was an expression of sad disappointment. Dan stood in the hall feeling as if the ground was moving under his feet.
"Tom seems to think Dan will do well," his mother said.
His father said, "I've never understood that friendship. If I didn't think so highly of Tom, I would think that boy likes to be around Dan just to feel smarter."
Dan stumbled back to his room; all thoughts of food fleeing from his mind. He knew that Tom didn't feel that way. It hurt to think that his father felt that the only reason someone would be his friend was so that they could feel superior to him. He looked over at the clock and realized that he had missed going over to Tom's house. He said, "Tom's going to be disappointed in me."
Shaking his head, he said, "I'm nothing but a disappointment to everyone."
Diana looked up from her bowl of cereal at Dan when he stepped into the kitchen. He was moving like an old man. She gasped when he looked over at her. Shocked at his appearance, she said, "Your face is really sunburned."
The skin on his face was so sensitive that smiling hurt. Dan said, "I know. It even hurts to talk."
"I bet," she said with a shudder. Not only was his face sunburned, so were his arms. Trying to get his mind off his sunburn, she asked, "So how does it feel to have a job and earn some money of your own?"
"It hurts," Dan said. Every muscle in his body hurt. Muscles he didn't know that he had hurt. His arms and legs were stiff. He had woken in the middle of the night with a leg cramp that brought tears to his eyes.
"You're moving kind of funny," Diana said watching him make his way over to the counter for a cup of coffee.
"I'm sore all over," Dan said feeling like he was doing nothing except complain.
"It will get better once you get used to it. When I first started working at the store, my feet used to kill me by the end of the night," Diana said. She took a spoonful of cereal.
"Don't remind me of my feet. I dropped a brick on my foot yesterday," Dan said thinking that this kind of pain was a lot different than sore feet.
Diana ate a little of her cereal. She hated soggy cereal and usually raced through her breakfast trying to finish it before it got too soggy to eat. With just a few spoonfuls left, she asked, "So what are you going to do after you walk the stage?"
While pouring a cup of coffee, Dan answered, "I'm going to stay in bed and rest."
Surprised by his plans, Diana asked, "Aren't you going somewhere with Tom?"
"No. His parents are taking him out for dinner tonight. They want to celebrate his graduation with a special evening out," Dan answered walking over to the table to take a seat. He wondered if Tom would want to have anything to do with him after he missed going over to his house the previous evening.
Diana ate a little more of her cereal before she said, "I'm sure that Mom and Dad have plans to celebrate your graduation, too."
"I suppose," Dan said thinking that his parents would celebrate his graduation despite the fact that he had been passed through his classes. He took a sip of his coffee remembering the conversation that he had overheard the night before.
Puzzled by his half-hearted reply, Diana asked, "What's the matter? You don't seem too proud about having graduated high school."
"Why should I be proud of that?" Dan asked. He would have shrugged his shoulders, but it hurt too much to move. The reminder of the ceremony that afternoon brought a twinge of dread to him. The idea of walking across the stage with his face the same color as an apple didn't appeal to him.
"It is a major accomplishment," Diana answered. She still had two years of high school and couldn't wait to graduate.
"It will be for you, but everyone knows that the teachers just passed me to keep Mom and Dad from suing the school," Dan said. He was pretty sure that his parents believed it. If that was the case, then everyone had to believe it was true.
"Don't say that. You worked hard to get through school. You worked harder than anyone else there," Diana said. She was getting upset by the direction of the conversation. She knew that Dan deserved to graduate. What bothered her was that Dan was always there for her when she had a problem and she didn't know what to say to make him feel better.
"I did work hard, but sometimes that just isn't enough," Dan said with a sigh. He took a sip of his coffee and stared off into space.
"What does Tom think?" Diana asked thinking that it would help.
"You know Tom. He thinks that I'm going to be a great success," Dan said rolling his eyes.
"Listen to him," Diana said.
"He doesn't mean it. He wouldn't ever say anything disheartening to me. Tom never says anything bad about anyone," Dan answered.
"He really gives Kim Parker hell," Diana said bringing up a well known exception. The verbal feuds between Tom and Kim were legendary at school. The time Tom had accused Kim of sleeping with the drama teacher to get the lead part in the school play had been particularly spectacular. Everyone remembered that fight. No one remembered that Kim had written 'I am stupid' on the back of Dan's favorite shirt right before the fight.
"I know. She's the only one that he dumps on with any great regularity. I still haven't figured out why," Dan said shaking his head.
Diana got up from the table and put her cereal bowl in the sink. She looked over at her brother and, hoping to cheer him up, asked, "Would you like me to make you some eggs for breakfast?"
Dan smiled despite how much it hurt and answered, "No thanks. I'll just have some cereal."