Name Jason Milwaukee
Subject Algebra II
Date September 6
Some days life makes more sense than other days. Today is not one of those days.
The algebra problems in front of me might as well be Moby Dick or Tale of Two Cities or A Separate Peace. I’ve had to plow through all three of those since I got to high school, and I didn’t like any of them.
I’m told I don’t think like other people, and I’m pretty sure that’s true. Not that I could explain it, even if I tried, but I always try, so—here’s this.
I talk great in my head, but I suck out loud, and sometimes because there’s so much racket, I’m not good at staying on track or explaining what I see, or maybe it’s that I’m not good at figuring out what I’m really seeing so I can put words to it.
It’s because of the voices.
When I turned eight and went swimming over at Noodle Creek, I met up with the wah-wah voices. That’s how I remember it happening. Not that the voices started or grew or popped into my head or came on because of some bone-deep soul-clawing trauma. It was more like they started whispering and I started looking for them and I sort of found them or met them or whatever, though I wouldn’t call them friends.
That’s how they sounded at first, one or two of them talking, then three or four, then five or six, and that’s all they said, like swishy mutters I couldn’t quite make out or understand, words that weren’t words and heartbeats that weren’t heartbeats and roars that were mumbles and mumbles that weren’t really anything at all. It’s hard to explain, and then it gets too loud, and—
Don’t worry. I don’t usually see things, like, see things, you know? Not unless it gets really bad. Mostly I just hear the voices.
Do the algebra test, stupid. That’s Bastard. He’s been pretty loud lately.
You’ll fail, you’ll fail, you’ll fail, says Whiner. She’s always loud, and she sounds like she’s singing.
Don’t bother, says one of the No-Names. And, Maybe you should try, says another, and Maybe you shouldn’t try says a third one. Maybe you should try. Maybe you shouldn’t try.
Shut up, shut up, shut up sings Whiner.
Bastard and Whiner and the No-Names. There have been others over the years, but this bunch of voices sticks around even when I take the fuzzy pills. They get quiet and they get distant sometimes, but they never really go away. It’s like having five or six radios in my brain, all tuned to different stations, with a few extra radios playing nothing but static.
Sometimes when I really jump the track, I start rhyming things and then laughing at the rhymes, but I don’t mean to. Sometimes I think scary, wacked-out junk, too, and I definitely don’t understand stuff the same way everybody else does, or so Drip and Sunshine always tell me, only Sunshine makes it sound like a good thing. Drip just makes it sound, well, drippy. Like a guy who’s allergic to the planet has so much room to pass judgment on anybody else.
We’re all six years old and we’re standing in this new school in this new class and we’re here because other kids make fun of us and we can’t get our work done and maybe we were bad and this one kid he’s tall tall basketball tall and skinny and his nose runs like everything and he’s got a hanky and he wipes it and he sticks out his hand and says I’m Derrick Taylor but my brothers call me Drip and the girl she’s got this long dark hair and long dark eyes and this quiet little smile and she plays with the little gold locket on the thin gold chain around her neck and she doesn’t say anything but Derrick Drip says her name is Sunshine Patton and my momma says her name really is Sunshine it’s not a nickname and she’s shy and then he listens like he can hear her even though her lips don’t move and he says Sunshine wants to be best friends can we all be best friends
-1 + (y+7)/(2y-6)
That’s the next problem on my algebra test, and don’t look at me, because I’ve got no clue. I think algebra should be optional, but nobody ever listens to people like me.
SQRT(x – 6) * SQRT(x + 3)
SQRT? Seriously? There’s no place for squirts in math, and what am I supposed to do with a *? What does anyone do with a *?
There isn’t even a stupid equal sign. Math’s supposed to have all these rules, then algebra breaks them, and that’s supposed to be okay.
Drip’s working on his test and sniffing and using his tissues and he’s way taller now than he was in first grade, like big-long-basketball-tall but he couldn’t bounce a basketball without breaking his toes with it. Sunshine can. She can do gymnastics and run fast like a cheetah and she’s good at math, too, but she hates English, and right now she’s at her desk between me and Drip, and she’s not writing because she’s already through with her test and she’s keeping her arms over it so Linden Green and Roland Harks can’t see it.
Way back when we were six years old and decided to be best friends, we should have known then that we’d end up here together, the three of us, Freak, Drip, and Sunshine, riding a short bus and hanging out in a single self-contained classroom labeled SED.
That’s Severely Emotionally Disturbed, for you long bus people.
SED is different from other special education classes, even though we all ride the same bus. The people in SED class, a lot of us can do regular school work, just not in a regular classroom. Most of us can learn just fine, only our alphabet gets in the way. There’s ADHD and just ADD without the H (that’s Drip). There’s MDD and BPD and GAD. When I first started school, I was GAD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, because I was nervous about everything and the doctors thought that was my disorder but really it was just the first part of a bigger disorder because now I’m SCZI. Schizophrenic. That’s my alphabet now. Sunshine’s our only SM, selectively mute, only she’s not selectively mute with me and Drip, but we don’t tell anybody because Drip’s mom was right all those years ago. Sunshine’s shy. She doesn’t much like other people, and Drip and I take care of her, or maybe she takes care of us. Doesn’t matter. We’re not ratting her out.
We’re okay, mostly, our bunch of alphabets. That means we try to do our work and we don’t beat on each other and even if we have problems sometimes, we get our meds changed and come right back and start over with 2x-6 x (7y-8) and we still don’t beat on anybody.
Then there are the other alphabets. The Linden Greens and Roland Harkses of our self-contained world. CD—conduct disturbance. ODD—oppositional defiant disorder. APD—antisocial personality disorder.
Beating on everybody, that’s what most of them do.
SQRT(-8 * 4)?
Forget it. The bad alphabets don’t try problems like these because they won’t, not because they can’t. My mom the Colonel says the school system shouldn’t put people like me and Drip and Sunshine in the same classes with those other alphabets, but the school system says if you’re an alphabet, you’re an alphabet and you’re in here, and I live with Dad, not the Colonel, and Dad isn’t a Colonel. He used to be a Lieutenant in the army and now he’s a Captain at the fire department. Dad says the system is the system, and some battles aren’t worth fighting. The Colonel’s all about battles and bucking up and holding it together, but when Dad told her to stop fighting the school system about where to put which alphabets, she dropped it. For the most part, my mom and dad get along even if they aren’t married. I’m lucky that way. I’ve got Dad during the week and the Colonel on the weekends, three weeks in the summer, and every other holiday when she’s not deployed. Sunshine doesn’t know her real dad and Drip’s dad isn’t allowed to come within five hundred feet of him or his mom or any of his four older brothers. So, see? I am lucky.
“I need your paper, Jason,” Mr. Watson says.
Linden mumbles, “Freak.”
Freak, says Bastard, and Whiner and all the No-Names pick up the echo so it’s freak freak freak freak freak freak freak from different directions and different sides and different volumes and some of those radio stations not coming in all the way but I don’t really care. Freak doesn’t hurt me anymore. I embrace Freak. I am Freak.
Mr. Watson waits. He’s used to me taking a minute to do what he says. I wish everybody else could be as nice as him.
Do you think he’ll be nice Sunshine asks and she’s squeezing her locket and staring at this new teacher this Mr. Watson who showed up our first day of tenth grade and he doesn’t look a lot older than Drip’s biggest brother but I guess he couldn’t be a teacher if he didn’t finish school and get his degree but seriously with that baby face and the wild scraggly curly hair and big eyes he looks like a scrawny cave man who bit a live wire but I say yeah he looks pretty nice and Drip says I don’t know because he’s littler than Linden and how can he make Linden and his boys do anything and Sunshine says it’s not like the teacher gets to hit anybody anyway so we leave it right there and Mr. Watson gets to stay nice or probably-nice and later Sunshine announces everything will be okay and everything will be okay because Sunshine said it
I hand in my paper. Mr. Watson takes it and smiles at me and he still looks like an electrocuted cave man. When he doesn’t shave, it gets worse. I do what I can to smile back, but I’m never really sure if I’m smiling because my alphabet makes smiling hard and lots of times I think I am but I’m not. Mr. Watson takes Drip’s test and Drip smiles because Drip smiles at everybody even when he shouldn’t. Mr. Watson takes Sunshine’s paper. He tries to catch her eye but she looks down fast because Sunshine still doesn’t talk to him. It’s only been two years. Sunshine needs a lot longer than two years to get used to people, especially guy-people, except for me and Drip.
You’re cute Jason because she calls me Jason even though everybody else calls me Freak even Drip but Sunshine calls him Derrick which you’d figure anyway last year she says you’re growing muscles and you’re cute Jason with your thick brown hair and those big brown eyes but I tell her the Colonel says my hair looks like a mop and my face is starting to look like a bristle broom and she says the Colonel doesn’t know everything and sometimes I wonder if maybe just maybe I count as a guy to Sunshine because I don’t to anybody else not really me or Drip either we’re here but we’re just here to most people but to Sunshine maybe we’re more than here maybe even better than here and that would be really really nice if it was true
“It’s okay Sunshine,” Mr. Watson says, and he keeps standing at her desk and she stares at the floor and keeps her fist around her necklace, a golden locket she never opens, her cheeks red as pain and cinnamon and she wants him to go away. She wants him to go away but he doesn’t, and now I’m wanting to make him go away and I know Drip wants to make him go away, too. People just don’t understand how hard it is for Sunshine.
Make him move you stupid coward, Bastard mutters.
Don’t, don’t, don’t, sings Whiner.
The No-Names are still stuck on, Freak, freak, freak.
You enable your friend. That’s not one of my wah-wah voices. That’s what one of my doctors told me, one of the ones who gives me my fuzzy pills and he asks about my life and my friends and I tell him about Drip and Sunshine. I see him once every three months when stuff is good and he gets letters from my school and the Colonel talks to him and so does the Captain so he always know what’s going on, or at least he thinks he does. You enable her and you help keep her sick. And I say okay but I’m not doing anything different because Drip and Sunshine and me we’ve got secrets we won’t tell anybody, even him or our parents or you or anybody else. We’ve got promises to each other and nobody can make us break them. Don’t talk for her, the doctor insists. And I say okay because okay’s a good word and it’s easy and the doctor moves on and Sunshine’s still safe and nothing has to change.
Later, after school, we’re walking through “bus alley,” a narrow sidewalk between the two rows of buses that pick people up, past all the long buses heading toward the short bus way up in front, and nobody looks at us. Most people our age ride with friends or have their own cars, but our parents haven’t let us get licenses yet. Drip would run right up somebody’s tailpipe and Sunshine would be too scared to turn on the car. I’m not sure I could drive, either, but sometimes I want to try.
You can’t drive, you idiot, you stupid, worthless piece of trash. You can’t, you can’t, you can’t. Maybe you could? I think you could. No, you can’t.
Can you guess which voices said which things? Yeah. Bastard, then Whiner, then the No-Names. They always seem to go in order, then all at once, like one big run-on bunch of yammer. I usually don’t bother paying attention to who says what. It’s distracting, especially when it’s bad. It’s not bad right now, though.
“I want to go see Lands of Eridor when it comes out,” Drip says. “Can you go with me Saturday, Freak?”
I yawn because the last class, American History, made me too sleepy for words. “The Colonel won’t let me. My doctors say no fantasy movies.”
“You get to read fantasy books,” Sunshine says. Her hair looks blue-black in the warm afternoon light. There’s the slightest breeze with a hint of cool and fall and colored leaves, and I can almost see those yellows and reds and oranges in the depths of Sunshine’s dark eyes.
I shrug, trying not to trip over my feet as I gaze into her eyes. “Movies are different, I guess.”
“Ask the Captain,” Drip says. “That’s what I say. We can go during the week.”
He’s got a point. The Captain’s a lot less uptight than the Colonel. Usually.
“Hey, pretty girl.” The voice comes from behind us, and we all three wince and walk faster, because it’s Roland, and if it’s Roland, then Linden’s not far behind him. They used to ride the short bus before they got cars, so they know where to look for us.
“Pretty girl,” Roland calls again and we don’t stop and we’re not planning to stop, but Linden Green steps out from between the last long bus and our short bus, and he’s sort of smiling and then he waves, so we stop.
Green, Green, just plain mean. That’s the rhyme I made for him once when I was getting a little more nuts than usual. He’s seventeen and officially in tenth grade though in alphabet-land we’re really “ungraded” and all together, ninth and tenth and eleventh and even twelfth, the last grade, like Sunshine, Drip, and me. Roland’s taller than Sunshine and me, and he’s got a lot more muscle than me and Drip. The way his dark eyes always look too bright with anger, and the way he keeps his dyed-black hair styled and the stupid look on his face, he could pass for a mobster extra, you know, the muscle-thug who breaks fingers for fun and pleasure.
“Roland wants a word,” he says.
You’re stupid to give in to him, you coward, you piece of junk. Green, Green, just plain mean. He’ll break your fingers. He’ll break your nose. Maybe he will. Maybe he won’t. . . .
All the voices, all running together. No point in naming them now.
Drip cracks his knuckles because he’s nervous, then has to drag out his tissues and blow his nose. I wish I had to blow my nose. I wish I could do something, because I hate stuff like this. Sunshine’s already shaking, and I want to take her hand, but that won’t help us with Roland.
He comes around to stand next to Linden, and he’s not looking at Drip or me, just Sunshine. She’s not looking at him, even though lots of girls do. Roland has charcoal hair and clear blue eyes. He’s the kind of guy who would be handsome if he weren’t evil. No, seriously. It’s not that I’m crazy, okay yeah, I know, I am crazy but so is he. In a different way. Roland is a whole different alphabet, and I wish he didn’t have to spell himself out near me or Drip or especially Sunshine.
“Pretty girl,” he says to her with that too-gentle tone he always uses, trying to get to her, to get her to notice him and look at him and I get afraid one day he’ll be talking to her like that as he hammers bamboo shoots under her fingernails and tsks-tsks and tells her she made him do it.
Sunshine doesn’t lift her head. Her right hand drifts up and grabs her locket.
Roland has probably memorized the part in her hair by now, because that’s all she ever does, show him the top of her head while she squeezes her locket as if it can cast spells to make him go away.
“I just want to talk to you,” Roland says. “Maybe grab a burger? Would that be so bad, pretty girl?”
Say something, you chickenshit. Don’t let him scare her like this. Tell him to quit. Tell him she doesn’t belong to him. Chickenshit, chickenshit, chickenshit. He’s scaring her. He’s not really scaring her. Maybe you’re not a chickenshit. . .
Roland takes a step closer to Sunshine, and if he lifts his arm, he’ll touch her, and here in bus alley it’s so narrow and cramped we can’t go sideways. We can’t go forward because of the bad alphabets, and if we run, they’ll catch us.
“Give us a break,” Drip mutters, because he can mutter and get away with it sometimes because he’s got big brothers and the bad alphabets know that.
“Stay out of this, Dripmeister,” Roland says.
“Dripmeister the Stretch. Stretch the Drip.” Linden sounds like my voices, but he’s not, even though he might as well be.
Sunshine just stares at the ground and shakes. She lets go of her locket. Her fingers flutter toward mine and I really, really want to hold her hand but I like my teeth and I’m scared of getting my nose snapped and Bastard’s right, I really am a total coward.
“Just a burger, pretty girl.” Roland is trying to sound charming. He might be succeeding. Maybe other people don’t see him as the kind of guy that’ll make an evil empire with minions one day. Maybe that’s just me and the wonked-out way I think which gets worse when I’m nervous and I’m getting nervous now.
Sunshine doesn’t think Roland is charming.
Hold her hand, all my voices say at the same time, only Bastard calls me lots of names in the middle of it.
“Hey, you!” The shout comes from behind me and Drip and Sunshine, and it scares us, and we all jump, but then I realize it’s her brother, Eli Patton.
On any other day, at any other moment, that might be its own problem. Eli’s nineteen, the oldest kid in the school, and he’s only five-foot-six, but that gives him sawed-off-runt syndrome really bad, and it’s worse because he looks like a mug shot. He can’t help it. That’s how he’s built, short and square with bristly coffee-colored hair, big ears, and a perpetually pissed off expression. He’s even got tattoos on his fingers, PAIN on his left hand and HOPE on his right. He got them during the two years he spent in Juvenile for assault and battery.
Linden gets all puffed-up and swaggery as Eli jogs up bus alley and pushes between Sunshine and me. Eli ignores him and focuses on Roland with a growly, snarly, “You buggin’ my sister again? Because I know you’re not.”
All of this just makes Sunshine shake harder but I still don’t have the guts to take her hand as Eli and Roland glare at each other and Linden does a lot of trash talking but keeps his distance.
Coward. You should hate yourself. Girly-man, girly-man, girly-man. Are you really a man? You’re not really a girl. Maybe you are. . .
All the voices, all at once. It doesn’t even matter who says what.
And maybe because there’s an actual felon involved, our lazy driver Mr. Poke—that’s his name, not making it up, I swear—finally comes down from the short bus and starts hollering about the principal and the police and detention and Roland and Linden give Eli a last set of not- so-friendly gestures and melt off between the long buses.
“You okay?” Eli asks Sunshine, and she doesn’t look at him, but she nods. His Dumbo-ears flush a dark red, and he touches her on the shoulders, just barely touches her like a brother checking on his sister, but she flinches like he’s scalding her, so he stops and says he’s sorry, then, “Karl will be here in a second to take me to the probation officer. Want us to give you a ride?”
Sunshine shakes her head so hard I’m surprised her brain doesn’t fall out her right ear.
“Okay, okay,” Eli says, sounding sorry but also a little pissed, which is pretty normal for him. “I’m just—you know. Covering the bases and making sure everything looks okay. Don’t get stressed.”
Covering the bases. Making everything look okay. That’s me echoing what Eli said, not my voices. Because that’s what we’re always doing, right? People with problems like mine and Sunshine’s and Drip’s. We have to cover the bases. We have to make everything look okay.
“Let’s move,” Mr. Poke says.
“Everything will be fine,” Eli tells Sunshine as he gets out of our way, then he says something about Karl leaving town as soon as he drops Eli off and Eli picking up dinner after his meeting, and Sunshine doesn’t say anything.
Sunshine barely gives Eli a glance as the three of us cover ground in a hurry, jogging up the bus steps then heading to our assigned seats at the back.
Yes, we have assigned seats. It’s a short bus thing.
I realize I’m breathing heavy, and Drip’s blowing a lot of snot, and Sunshine’s just sitting in her very back seat not looking at either of us.
“Sorry,” I tell her, and I think I’m meaning about not holding her hand but she probably thinks I’m meaning about Roland bugging her again.
She shrugs and does a little shake with her head, which is Sunshine for, No big deal, just give me a minute.
Drip and I glance at each other, then out the bus window. We see Eli getting into his and Sunshine’s stepfather’s car. It’s a newer model, but still big and gas hungry and shiny black. As for Karl—Mr. Franks—he’s got thin sandy brown hair and a moustache and lines around his eyes. I don’t like Mr. Franks, but I don’t want to think about that because it doesn’t really matter who I like or don’t like so I shift my attention back to Sunshine.
Her china-white skin’s getting a little color to it, at the neck and ears and chin, which is all I can see of the front of her, the way she’s bent over, but that’s good. It’s normal for her. She’s coming back to us an inch at a time, like she always does. Her fingers tap against her golden locket like she’s counting. It’s small, not any bigger than the pad of her thumb, and the etchings have been worn smooth from where she rubs it so much. I’ve never asked her what’s in it because it seemed wrong. She’ll tell me if she ever wants to.
Sometimes I wonder, though.
The short bus starts up like it always does, except on really cold days, and it leads the bus wagon-train away from the high school.
Drip and Sunshine and me, we stay pretty quiet on the bus, which has kids from other alphabet classes, the kind for people who stay like little kids in their heads forever, so they’re noisy, several of them, hooting and laughing and talking to Mr. Poke. About half an hour later, we get off the bus on Slide Street, also known as “Apartment Avenue” because of all the apartment complexes built like hives and warrens into the hillsides.
For a while, as we walk up the hill, we talk about homework and what we’re having for dinner and what we’re going to do about Roland if he won’t leave Sunshine alone, but that’s all we ever manage—talking about it. We never do anything, because we’re alphabets and alphabets are disorganized, and besides, nobody listens to us anyway.
Then Drip heads north toward the upper-scale Crestview duplexes where he lives and Sunshine heads south toward Hilltop (her townhouse complex has a pool), and I walk straight across the street, covering the hundred or so yards to the entrance to the decent Skymont apartments where I live with the Captain.
I’m home by four-thirty. Drip hits his front door by four-thirty-three.
And somewhere between “Bye, Jason,” and five o’clock, Sunshine Patton disappears from the face of the earth.
“. . . A nuanced portrait of a teen living with a severe mental illness, both in its devastating difference and its common truth.” Booklist
“Freaks Like Us is a compelling, superbly crafted story that will hook you and grab you from the first page. More than a book about mental illness written with an insider’s knowledge, it is also a love story and a story written with love about young people on the outskirts of what the world calls normal. I urge you to read it” Francisco X Stork, author of Marcelo in the Real World
“I love this book. Susan Vaught has absolutely nailed this character, his pain, struggles and triumphs. Bravo!” Terry Trueman, Printz Honor author of Stuck in Neutral
“Freaks Like Us by Susan Vaught is in a class of its own,” Sunday Telegraph
Listed as one of ‘Eight Books That Just Might Change Your Life’ Bookpage.com