Monday April 26

The seventh form common room was at the far northern end of the St Francis College buildings, across the hall from the equally chaotic art room. Dennis was walking there a dozen paces behind Shane Bijelic. Shane hadn’t noticed him, which suited Dennis just fine. He wanted to watch.
The stereos in the common room and the art room were competing, weakling classic rock from the common room, manufactured kid-punk from the art room. Shane smiled like a balloon popping and pulled a tape from his pocket.
Two third-formers rocketed out the art room door too fast and sheared off Shane’s side, still laughing. Shane grabbed the second collar and yanked the boy off his feet. He lifted his designer shades with his free hand to reveal steely full-moon eyes. ‘Don’t run in the corridors. Child.’ He growled the r-sounds like he was kickstarting a motorbike. The kid gulped and Shane tossed him aside. By the time the two kids raced past Dennis, Shane had apparently forgotten the whole thing.
Shane was big and supernaturally strong and sometimes he seemed like a photo negative, his eyes white and shining. He was widely believed to be on all the drugs all the time. He strutted into the common room. Dennis followed as far as the door, hanging back.
The common room was not the most handsome place around. There were a few seventh formers lounging about among the sagging armchairs and piles of litter. Most of the senior class were outside, sitting in the sun or throwing a frisbee around. Shane went straight to the stereo. Some people looked up as the classic rock died in a hiss of static. He took a few steps back from the big speakers, drew back his arm and waited.
He punched the air exactly as the beat hit.
The floor rattled as the bassline established. Shane started bobbing his head like a pigeon and rapping along, pumping his arms in and out like they were wings:
‘Listen up fucker to the O.G.
Time you get to know me
Like the bitches that’ve rode me
Compton my territory
Instinct is predatory
Finger on my trigger and a pussy on my dick
The only things that matter to a gangster…’
Then he began to laugh, pointing at his crotch with his tongue hanging out, off in his own world.
Dennis leaned against the door frame, fascinated. Scott appeared beside him, his lips curling in distaste. He shouted at the cavorting Shane. ‘You crazy fuck, what are you doing?’
Shane cackled. ‘Whaddaya think I’m doing?’ He spun around three-sixty, pointing at the floor. ‘I’m the Phantom of the Hiphopera!’
Scott snorted. ‘You suck!’
Shane just barked laughter at the ceiling and kept dancing.
Scott stared around the room, then nudged Dennis. ‘Looks like they’re not here either. Probably at the hoop, I reckon. Let’s go.’
Dennis didn’t budge. ‘Look at him.’
‘Can’t not, with all the prancing and pumping and whatever the fuck. He loves that obscure gangster rap bullshit. Christ, he’s so cheesy.’
‘Shut up and look at him.’
Shane whirled like a top in the centre of the room, echoing the stereo’s profanities, grinning like a fool.
Scott grabbed Dennis’ arm and pulled him back into the corridor. ‘What is with you? That guy is a freak of nature. Can we go find the others?’
Dennis shrugged.
They went outside and crossed the courtyard, the frisbee lifting and drifting past. Dennis watched it hang in the air. Phil leapt up and let it bounce off his head, letting out a wolf howl as he landed. Kane walked over and punched him in the gut and they started wrestling. The frisbee lay forgotten on the concrete.
Scott stared at Dennis’ eyes. ‘Are you stoned?’
Dennis gave him the finger.
‘Seriously. Are you stoned?’
‘Fuck you, Collins.’
Scott shrugged. ‘Just asking. Shit.’
Dennis had his hands in his pockets and his hair brushed forward to hang over his eyes. Scott scanned the courtyard for Adam and Richard. ‘They must be over by the hoop.’
‘I’m not in the mood for basketball.’ Dennis headed in a different direction, towards the frisbee scuffle. Kane had upended Phil and was threatening to drop him on his head, amid much laughter. Dennis picked up the frisbee and threw it forehand at Jacob, who caught it handily.
‘Hey, Dennis, Scott, what’s up?’ James was calling out to them from an armchair sitting at the edge of the field. It had been dragged over from the common room, along with a ratty old couch on which Mike and Brett were sharing the latest Auto Trader.
Dennis switched direction to head over. Scott followed along.
‘Looking forward to the game on Friday?’ James asked. ‘It’ll be great to get there at last, you know? Damon’s been giving us all this training but it’s a bit weird without any actual games. It’ll be cool.’
Dennis smiled easily. ‘You ever been in a proper game? With refs and all that?’
‘Nah. You guys?’
‘Nope. New for us, too.’
‘Huh. I figured you guys would be over at the hoop right now. I should probably be over there myself.’
Dennis shrugged. ‘Nah.’
‘So, hey, you’ve heard about my party on Saturday?’
‘Have now. Parents away?’
‘Same old same old.’ James’ was a renowned party place, big space, big stereo, parents often gone. ‘Though not a pool party this time, the neighbours are there. Too damn cold anyway.’
Scott was puzzled. ‘What is the story? There’s a pool but it’s not yours?’
‘Back neighbours,’ James said. ‘They watched me and Paula grow up – like grandparents, I guess? The deal is that we use their stuff and they feel they didn’t waste their lives. But if they’re there then a big debauched pool party in their pool isn’t the coolest idea. It’s a pity I can’t put it together more. Girls in bikini suits, you know? Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a girl into a bikini in this town? Shit, that cold fucking wind has a lot to answer for.’
‘I’m sure Sasha isn’t regretting the lack of bikini babes,’ Dennis said.
James waved away this reference to his girlfriend. ‘So, you guys should come. We can talk about how cool it was to win our first game.’
Dennis nodded. ‘Sounds good.’
‘Wicked. Nice to get you four along for a change.’
‘Us four,’ Dennis said.
James grinned at Scott. ‘Bring good beers. None of that cheap shit, not at my parties.’
Scott looked offended. ‘Don’t look at me. I drink the same shit beer as everyone else.’
‘Shut up, Scott,’ Dennis said.

The floor of Dennis’s old Honda was ankle-deep in old soft-drink bottles and crumpled paper. Scott flicked a sundae punnet off the passenger seat and into the mire. ‘That breeze’s got an edge to it, huh?’ He rummaged through his bag for a school jersey. ‘Fuck I hate the cold. Hello winter, you piece of shit.’
Dennis checked himself in the rearview mirror then started the car. ‘It’s good. Keeps you focused.’
‘Focused on getting warm.’
They pulled out in a traffic gap and rolled away from the school. Both of them were sweaty from another after-school shoot-around at the hoop, which this time had drawn James, Lio and Ray.
Dennis wiped his brow. ‘What shall we have?’
‘Don’t care. Dinner.’
‘You pay, you can pick.’
‘I pay?’
‘Is that all right? Thanks, man.’
Scott pulled this shit a lot. He was always scraping for cash. So was Dennis, actually, but at least he had some class.
‘Fuck,’ Scott said. ‘Do you reckon Adam is going to handle it? It’s like he’s got no guts in him. Fuck, I can’t work out how to set him off, you know?’
‘He’ll be fine.’
‘You reckon?’
‘He’ll cope.’
The Chinese place was a tight lino triangle with a whiteboard menu. The menu wasn’t numbered, one of the reasons Dennis liked it. The TV in the corner played the news to a pile of tattered magazines, and a couple of kids ran past. Scott ordered fried rice for them both and they wandered out to the sidewalk. ‘Let’s check out the new releases,’ Scott said, eyeing the big video franchise across the road.
‘Come on, I want to look.’
‘Go for it.’
‘You’re a clown, Den. It isn’t like your impeccable taste couldn’t do with some research, you know?’
‘I pick interesting stuff.’
‘You pick shit, man. It’s fucking obvious they’ll suck but every time you walk out with these pieces of shit. Don’t believe the hype, man.’
Dennis leaned on the bonnet of his car. ‘I remember Lauren liked what I picked.’
‘That one? She liked it ironically. That doesn’t count.’
‘So is that how you like her? Ironically?’
‘Shut up.’
‘Doesn’t seem to count for much, is all.’
Scott punched Dennis in the arm, hard. Dennis just grinned. Scott punched him again. ‘Yeah, fuck you. She’s coming back and I have a game plan.’
‘You think she’d be interested in you.’
‘Why not? I’m a handsome man. There’s only one tiny hitch holding me back, and that’s my annoying habit of continually fucking up every single thing in my life. But apart from that, you know, what could possibly go wrong?’
‘Notice any chemistry?’
‘I notice plenty. You know me. Noticing shit is my gimmick. Perceptive like Sherlock. Shit, I knew Richard was on edge a week before he dropped the bomb.’
‘Bull. You thought it was about Kirsty.’
‘Naw, that was different. I clocked that too. I got that there was something else on his mind.’
‘Did you get that he was going to tell Kirsty all that shit and not us?’
Scott stared at Dennis. ‘That pissed you off, didn’t it?’
Dennis shrugged, unwilling to be drawn. He felt flattened out.
Scott glanced in at the Chinese place and the woman who had taken their order. ‘Those kids that ran past before? They’re her kids.’
Dennis raised his eyebrows. ‘How d’you figure?’
‘Just a guess. They were brothers, different ages. And there’s no homes near here. They’re allowed to play outside the shop until it’s dark.’ Scott shrugged. ‘Its just instinct. It just seems obvious. Not Rich, though, he’s not obvious. The easiest things to notice are changes. When it’s moving, it jumps out, right? Then you just see where it stops.’
‘I never stop,’ Dennis said.
‘Yeah. And it makes you a bitch to get.’
A car pulled up and a pair of girls got out. They looked about sixteen, both blonde. One girl, in glasses, wore a white tee with flowers embroidered on the left side, and jeans. Her companion had more of a woman’s figure, cargo pants and a blue vest. Dennis caught Scott’s eye, leaned back against his car and spoke loud enough for them to hear: ‘Get the chicken rice.’
‘What?’ asked the girl in cargoes.
‘Chicken rice. It’s the best.’
‘I kind of like the noodle dishes,’ the girl said with an endearing mixture of front and shyness.
He gave her that look he could give. The girls stopped short. He brushed back his hair absently. ‘The noodles are good. But the chicken rice is the best.’
‘Okay, got it,’ said the girl in cargoes, smiling back. ‘Thumbs up for the chicken rice.’
‘If you get noodles you’ll regret it,’ Dennis said.
The girl with glasses laughed abruptly and Den knew he had them both. ‘We’ll regret it?’ she asked.
‘Sure. You’ll walk away and munch on your noodles and think… maybe I should have tried the chicken rice. And then some day you’ll be back here and you’ll get the chicken rice and then – right then – you’ll regret this moment, when you decided not to take a chance.’
The girls went inside, and as soon as the door closed they started talking to each other, carefully keeping their backs to the outside. Dennis glanced at Scott.
’man,’ Scott said. ‘I don’t fucking know.’
The woman behind the counter waved. Dennis went in to collect the order. The girls were waiting for him, standing off to the side, not making it easy. He tilted his head at them. ‘You totally ignored my advice, didn’t you.’
The girl with glasses laughed. Dennis shook his head in mock-disappointment, grinning a little. The girl in cargoes spoke up, ‘It isn’t that we don’t trust you or anything. We just, you know, really really like the noodle dishes.’
‘I’m sure.’ Dennis smiled, held their attention for a beat, then took the plastic bag containing his and Scott’s food off the counter.
There was a sudden hustle of movement and the kids from earlier reappeared, leaning on the door with all their strength to push it open. Dennis watched them come in. Outside, Scott was watching.
He turned back to the girls. ‘Hey. Want to give me your number? I think there’s a bit more to say about this whole affair.’
The girl in cargoes used pen and paper from the counter to write her number down. She gave it to him. He gave her that look, again, and backed away, then turned out the door.
Scott was waiting for him. They got in the car and Dennis handed over the food. ‘Chicken rice.’
 ‘With a side order of phone number?’ Scott asked, glancing out the windscreen at the girls.
Dennis held out the piece of paper, the girl’s and number written in black pen. ‘You have your gifts, I have mine.’
He dropped it. It drifted down into the mess at their feet.