Carol looked at me with her mouth open. “They were . . .” She couldn’t seem to finish it.
“That’s what I think.”
She smiled; a little giggle escaped her. Then she laughed right out loud. It seemed a little disrespectful of the dead, but I let it pass. Although, to tell you the truth, Mrs. Underwood was never far from my mind.
After all, I was almost stand-ing on her.
“That big guy’s coming,” Billy Sawyer said.
Sure enough, Frank Philbrick was striding toward the school, looking neither right nor left. I hoped the news photographers were getting his good side; who knew, he might want to use some of the pix on this year’s Xmas cards. He walked through the main door. Down the hall, as if in another world, I could hear his vague steps pause and then go up to the office. It occurred to me in a strange sort of way that he seemed real only inside. Everything beyond the windows was tel-evision. They were the show, not me.
My classmates felt the same way. It was on their faces.
“Yes, sir?” I said.
He was a heavy breather. You could hear him puffing and blowing into the mike up there like some large and sweaty animal. I don’t like that, never have. My father is like that on the telephone. A lot of heavy breathing in your ear, so you can almost smell the scotch and Pall Malls on his breath. It always seems unsanitary and somehow homosexual.
“This is a very funny situation you’ve put us all in, Decker.”
“I guess it is, sir.”
“We don’t particularly like the idea of shooting you.”
“No, sir, neither do I. I wouldn’t advise you to try.”
Heavy breathing. “Okay, let’s get it out of the henhouse and see what we got in the sack. What’s your price?”
“Price?” I said. “Price?” For one loony moment I had the impression he had taken me for an interesting piece of talking furniture-a Morns chair, maybe, equipped to huckster the prospective buyer with all sorts of pertinent info. At first the idea struck me funny. Then it made me mad.
“For letting them go. What do you want? Air time? You got it. Some sort of statement to the papers?
You got that.” Snort-snort-snore. Likewise, puff-puff–puff. “But let’s do it and get it done before this thing turns into a hairball. But you got to tell us what you want. ”
“You,” I said.
The breath stopped. Then it started again, puffing and blowing. It was starting to really get on my nerves.
“You’ll have to explain that,” he said.
“Certainly, sir,” I said. “We can make a deal. Would you like to make a deal? Is that what you were saying?”
No answer. Puff, snort. Philbrick was on the six-o’clock news every Memorial Day and Labor Day, reading a please-drive-safely message off the teleprompter with a certain lumbering ineptitude that was fascinating and almost endearing. I had felt there was something familiar about him, something intimate that smacked of deja vu . Now I could place it. The breathing. Even on TV he sounded like a bull getting ready to mount Farmer Brown’s cow in the back forty.
“What’s your deal?”
“Tell me something first,” I said. “Is there anybody out there who thinks I might just decide to see how many people I can plug down here? Like Don Grace, for instance?”
“That piece of shit,” Sylvia said, then clapped a hand over her mouth.
“Who said that?” Philbrick barked.
Sylvia went white.
“Me,” I said. “I have certain transsexual tendencies too, sir.” I didn’t figure he would know what that meant and would be too wary to ask. “Could you answer my question?”
“Some people think you might go the rest of the way out of your gourd, yes,” he answered weightily.
Somebody at the back of the room tittered. I don’t think the intercom picked it up.
“Okay, then,” I said. “The deal is this. You be the hero. Come down here. Unarmed. Come inside with your hands on your head. I’ll let everybody go. Then I’ll blow your fucking head off. Sir. How’s that for a deal? You buy it?”
Puff, snort, blow. “You got a dirty mouth, fella. There are girls down there. Young girls. ”
Irma Bates looked around, startled, as if someone had just called her.
“The deal,” I said. “The deal.”
“No,” Philbrick said. “You’d shoot me and hold on to the hostages.” Puff, snort. “But I’ll come down.
Maybe we can figure something out.”
“Fella,” I said patiently, “if you sign off and I don’t see you going out the same door you came in within fifteen seconds, someone in here is just going to swirl down the spout. ”
Nobody looked particularly worried at the thought of just swirling down the spout.
Puff, puff. “Your chances of getting out of this alive are getting slimmer.”
“Frank, my man, none of us get out of it alive. Even my old man knows that. ”
“Will you come out?”
“If that’s how you feel.” He didn’t seem upset. “There’s a boy named Jones down there. I want to speak with him.”
It seemed okay. “You’re on, Ted,” I told him. “Your big chance, boy. Don’t blow it. Folks, this kid is going to dance his balls off before your very eyes.”
Ted was looking earnestly at the black grating of the intercom. “This is Ted Jones, sir. ” On him, “sir”
“Is everyone down there still all right, Jones?”
“Yes, sir. ”
“How do you judge Decker’s stability?”
“I think he’s apt to do anything, sir,” he said, looking directly at me. There was a savage leer in his eyes.
Carol looked suddenly angry. She opened her mouth as if to refute, and then, perhaps remembering her upcoming responsibilities as valedictorian and Leading Lamp of the Western World, she closed her mouth with a snap.
“Thank you, Mr. Jones.”
Ted looked absurdly pleased at being called mister.
Snort, snort.”Be seeing you.”
“I better see you,” I said. “Fifteen seconds.” Then, as an afterthought: “Phil-brick?”
“You’ve got a shitty habit, you know it? I’ve noticed it on all those TV drive–safely pitches that you do.
You breathe in people’s ears. You sound like a stallion in heat, Philbrick. That’s a shitty habit. You also sound like you’re reading off a teleprompter, even when you’re not. You ought to take care of stuff like that. You might save a life.”
Philbrick puffed and snorted thoughtfully.
“Screw, buddy,” he said, and the intercom clicked off.
Exactly twelve seconds later he came out the front door, striding stolidly along. When he got to the cars that had been driven onto the lawn, there was another conference. Philbrick gestured a lot.
Nobody said anything. Pat Fitzgerald was chewing a fingernail thoughtfully. Pig Pen had taken out another pencil and was studying it. And Sandra Cross was looking at me steadily. There seemed to be a kind of mist between us that made her glow.
“What about sex?” Carol said suddenly, and when everyone looked at her, she colored.
“Male,” Melvin said, and a couple of the jocks in the back of the room haw–hawed.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Carol looked very much as if she wished her mouth had been stitched closed. “I thought when someone started to act . . . well . . . you know, strangely . . . ” She stopped in confusion, but Susan Brooks sprang to the ramparts.
“That’s right,” she said. “And you all ought to stop grinning. Everyone thinks sex is so dirty. That’s half what’s the matter with all of us. We worry about it. ” She looked protectively at Carol.
“That’s what I meant,” Carol said. “Are you . . . well, did you have some bad experience?”
“Nothing since that time I went to bed with Mom,” I said blandly.
An expression of utter shock struck her face, and then she saw I was joking. Pig Pen snickered dolefully and went on looking at his pencil.
“No, really,” she said.
“Well,” I said, frowning. “I’ll tell about my sex life if you’ll tell about yours.”
“Oh . . .” She looked shocked again, but in a pleasant way.
Gracie Stanner laughed. “Cough up, Carol.” I had always gotten a murky impression that there was no love lost between those two girls, but now Grace seemed genuinely to be joking-as if some understood but never-mentioned inequality had been erased.
” ‘Ray, ‘ray,” Corky Herald said, grinning.
Carol was blushing furiously. “I’m sorry I asked.”
“Go on,” Don Lordi said. “It won’t hurt.”
“Everybody would tell,” Carol said. “I know the way bo . . . the way people talk around. ”
“Secrets,” Mike Gavin whispered hoarsely, “give me more secrets.” Every-body laughed, but it was getting to be no laughing matter.