Property of the StateExcerpt Chapter
1.1: Surfing teh Pr0n
“Joseph. Don’t sit down.” I’m barely through the door of Moylan’s sixth period Trigonometry dungeon but he’s already on my ass. “You’re required in the office.”
My therapist says I should count to ten before I open my mouth. With Moylan, I seldom make it past one. “My name isn’t Joseph.”
“You’re avoiding the issue.”
Everyone is pointedly ignoring us. “The issue is my name isn’t Joseph. Why is that so fucking hard to remember?”
“I won’t tolerate such language. That’s a referral.”
“A referral for who?”
The man has a face like a clenched fist. “I will not debate you. The matter is closed.” He puffs up, in case I missed the part where he’s being an autocratic douchenozzle. “Report to the office, Joseph.”
I drag my pack through the middling busy corridor, aware my shirt is stuck to my back. Only two weeks into the school year and the AC is tits up—with the Oregon summer lingering beyond all reason. I dodge people working the equation on the Prove It board outside Moylan’s room. Others gather in study groups—or to gossip—in every free corner. At my old schools, people would be in class, but at Katz Learning Annex, the schedule is more guideline than rule. The hallway chatter is loud enough to loosen teeth.
When I turn the corner to the main hall, I see Trisha Lee sitting on the floor outside the library, a book open on her lap. One hand fiddles with one of her big braids looping across her shoulders. She looks up as I pass. Her eyebrows form twin question marks.
“Cooper summons,” I tell her. “No idea.”
She frowns like she knows something I don’t. “Text me later?”
I see way too much of Mr. Cooper—or, as he likes to say, “Gary Cooper…no relation.” No relation to who? Wait, don’t ask, because if you do you get the Encyclopedia Bigwhuptica entry on the life and times of some actor who’s been dead since before color.
He waits for me in the outer office, cool and relaxed in his suit and tie despite the heat. He’s tall, and one of those people who likes to stand too close. I’d have to tilt my head back to make eye contact, so I don’t bother. “Right this way, Joey.” At least he knows my name. He gestures me through the door to his corral, as he likes to call it. The hinges could use a spritz of WD-40.
I have no idea why I’m here. My only involvement in the Drama of the Day was as a witness. Duncan Fox and one of his minions were slap-fighting in the hall at the end of lunch period—some kind of impromptu celebration. They were both laughing, though Duncan had that edge, which told me he was playing to win. He even tried to drag me into the ruckus—“Yo, Getchie, you missed the show. Gotta settle for the after party.” I moved back as he swung wide and wild, unaware of Philip Huntzel coming out of the bathroom behind him. Elbow to face, nothing but net. Philip’s nose exploded.
At that exact second Mrs. Huntzel came charging up the hall.
Normally, your mother isn’t there to rescue you in high school, but Mrs. Huntzel volunteers in the office. All day. Every day. Don’t get me wrong. I like Mrs. Huntzel. She hired me to clean stately Huntzel Manor, and she pays in cash. Keeps me in coffee, cell service, and carpentry supplies. But it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if she gave Philip a little air.
Cooper has me sit down on one of the two wooden guest chairs, then drops into his own leather throne. Because of Mr. Cooper, I know what pomade is. I can smell it from across the desk. The office is decorated like a chain restaurant, Western-themed. Lassoes and riding gear adorn the walls around a framed photo of Cooper on a horse. The nameplate on his desk has a six-pointed sheriff’s badge engraved next to his name. Subtle.
“I’m disappointed in you.”
So, not Duncan and Philip. I hold my backpack in my lap, gaze up at the smoke detector, waiting for the red light to blink. At least his office is quiet.
“A serious matter has been brought to my attention. Obviously, I want to hear your side.”
Uh-huh. When they tell you, Anything you say can and will be used against you, they are not kidding. Even if what you say is completely innocent, they will twist it into a reason to screw you over.
There’s a knock on the door. Cooper calls out, “Come on in.”
After the way Cooper greeted me, I’m not surprised to see my caseworker. Mrs. Petty last came to this office in the spring, the day I tried to dislocate Duncan’s jaw. A misunderstanding.
Mrs. Petty is about the size of your thumb, but don’t get any ideas. Her miniature torso is shaped like the Tasmanian Devil, her short hair fits like a helmet over her dark scalp, and when she’s riled her eyes flash like lasers. In a fight between Mrs. Petty and a rabid pit bull, the safe bet’s on her. I’ve seen her stare down torqued-up tweakers three times her size.
Cooper is all sorrowful smiles and apologies. “Sorry you had to come in, Mrs. Petty.”
“It’s no problem. Joey and I are overdue for a check-in anyway.” She sits down in the empty seat next to me, pats my hand. “Aren’t we, Joey?”
I see my therapist more often, but Mrs. Petty sits in on sessions once every month or two. I don’t feel neglected.
Cooper folds his hands on the desktop. I refuse to meet his eyes. “I called Mrs. Petty in because I felt it was important she be here to discuss the current situation.”
“Discuss the current situation” is code for “we’re about to take a dump in your hat.” My legs twitch, ready to bolt. Except I’d have to go through Mrs. Petty.
“Joey, you understand the laptop Katz provides you is for academic use only.”
They issued the laptops on the first day of school. There was all kinds of fuss about what the nitwit underpowered machines were for. ChalkChat, so-called “collaborative education software” for getting assignments and messaging our teachers, came pre-installed. Annoying, but whatever. Wayne Bobbitt, my alleged foster father, insists on having my login, so I’ve been careful about what I do on the computer.
Cooper makes a church with his hands. “I’ve received reports from the school IT department that you’ve used your computer to visit inappropriate websites.”
I Spock one eyebrow. Though they deny wiretapping us, everyone knows better. Jeff Somers even worked up a hack to block the spyware, makes it look like the computer is asleep while you’re doing…whatever. But so far, all I’ve used the machine for is ChalkChat, JSTOR, and word processing.
Except, apparently not.
I could deny it, but what would be the point? You can’t win. There’s no defense, because even if you can somehow prove they’re wrong, they punish you for making them look bad.
I still haven’t said anything. Cooper is getting impatient, but Mrs. Petty has known me longer. She leans across the arm of her chair. “Joey, this is a serious matter. Your place here at Katz is not guaranteed.”
Cooper nods. “According to your Individualized Education Plan—”
“I’m pretty sure my IEP doesn’t mention porn.”
It’s a guess, but dead-on based on their expressions. Cooper sits back and looks at Mrs. Petty. Gravity has taken charge of the corners of her mouth. Cooper lifts one hand and turns it over.
“Semantic games aren’t the way to go here. This is your third strike.”
Apparently Moylan’s referral already made its way up the chain of command.
“You remember what we told you the last time you were in this room.”
My eyes find the smoke detector again. “Why do you think we take our metaphor for the end of mercy from baseball? Why not football? I’d have another down to shape up. Or in hoops, I’d have two fouls to give.”
“Of course, if we were talking soccer, I’d already have a couple of yellow cards, so maybe I should be glad we went with baseball.”
I’ve pissed them off, but this situation was going wrong before I opened my mouth. I settle back in my chair. I wonder if Mrs. Huntzel will get home from the emergency room with Philip anytime soon. Doesn’t matter, since I have a key and the alarm code. Tuesday is living room and library day, dust and vacuum. Takes two hours, because every surface is covered with knickknacks. The living room alone has more square footage than the entire Bobbitt hovel.
“Joey?” Mrs. Petty’s voice is calm, as always. I realize I’m staring at the photo of Mr. Cooper. He looks more at home in the saddle than he does behind his desk. I turn to Mrs. Petty.
“What about it?”
They exchange a look. I’ve missed something.
“No laptop, one month. You need to hand it over.”
In my arms, my backpack gathers sudden weight.
“But I need it.” My tongue feels like it’s glued to the roof of my mouth. “I have—”
“You can do any assignments that require a computer in the school lab.” Cooper frowns. “There’s no need to make this difficult.”
Yes, there is. “I left it at the Boobies.”
“Joey.” Mrs. Petty says I’m being childish when I call them the Boobies. She doesn’t have to live with them. “Why don’t you open your backpack, just to make sure?”
Everyone in the room is already sure.
Wayne “reviews” my work every night, which is when I figure he watches the porn. It would never occur to him the school is watching too. I might try explaining that to Mrs. Petty and Cooper, but no matter what you say…As heat boils off my head and puddles around me, I slide the laptop out of my pack.
Cooper waits, his lips compressing, then reaches across his desk and gestures impatiently. When I don’t move, Mrs. Petty grabs the computer and hands it to him. He sets it on the credenza behind him. I offer him the power cord too, but he’s on a roll and ignores me. “If you perform up to expectations, you may earn the computer back early.”
Time off for good behavior. Cold comfort.
I set the cord on his desk. The laptop won’t turn on unless it’s plugged in. If Cooper, or someone from IT, decides to find out why and opens the battery compartment, getting expelled will be the least of my problems.
I wonder how far I can get on foot. “That’s it?”
They exchange another look. Mrs. Petty reaches for my hand, but I pull away. It takes everything I’ve got not to stare over Cooper’s shoulder at my laptop. At my doom.
“Then I guess we’re done.”
Excerpt: Chapter One from Property of the State, published by The Poisoned Pencil.