We like our new recruits young— twelve or thirteen at most. When they’re right on the edge of that precipice we call adolescence, we can still shape them. We can still help them. When they get older, it gets more dangerous. Take Ajax Holdren, for example.
“—damaged, selfish, conceited, obsessive thug.” The girl finished her tirade and glared at Ajax, panting.
Ajax leaned on his open locker door and looked down at his fingers. He’d been ticking off the insults. “We’re almost at jerk bingo,” he said. He glanced up, met the furious gaze of his ex-girlfriend. “Let’s see,” he said musingly. “Oh yes.” He cleared his throat. “Meredith, what was it, a week ago? When you were telling me how desperately you loved me? And now this? Wouldn’t you call it kind of… crazy?”
For a minute he thought he’d succeeded in making her lose what remained of her dignity. But she drew herself up, brushed her hair away from her face and said calmly, “Three weeks ago. And I call it closure. Enjoy being miserable and lonely, Ajax.” She turned and stalked back to her friends, who gave her triumphant fist pumps.
“Those aren’t even on the jerk bingo card!” he called after her, then slammed his locker door shut.
“Wow. What did you do to her?” said one of the guys a few lockers down. Ajax didn’t answer as he slung his ragged canvas backpack over his shoulder. Dumped her as soon as she started to act like what we had was more than fun and games, he didn’t say, even thought it was true. “I have to get to my job,” he said instead. “I’ll tell you about it tomorrow. Use your imagination until then.”
It wasn’t just an excuse. Meredith’s ‘closure’ had made him late for his job. He slipped out the side entrance of the high school, so he wouldn’t run into any of Meredith’s friends who wanted to pick up where she left off. Jerk bingo was always fun, but he wasn’t in the mood to deal gracefully with any more girls.
He jogged over to the hardware store where he worked, where he was met by his surprised manager.
“Ajax. Didn’t you get my message?”
Ajax narrowed his eyes. “No.”
“I left you a message yesterday, man. We had to cut your hours. You don’t have a shift today.”
“What the hell? Why?”
His manager shrugged. “Times are hard, dude. We had to cut some hours somewhere, and you’re still a kid. Some of us here have families to support.” He tried to clap Ajax on the shoulder, but Ajax jerked away. “At least you still have some hours.”
“Yeah. Thanks,” muttered Ajax.
Outside the store again, he fished out his phone and looked at it. It wouldn’t turn on, even though he knew the battery was charged. Great. But what could really be expected from a cheap hand-me-down from his father? And his father had probably gotten it from Leo, his scummy ‘business partner’ and housemate first.
He’d needed those hours. Most of the time, he had to buy his own clothes and his own food. He kept the food in his own fridge, too, because otherwise his father and Leo ate up whatever was in the kitchen fridge and relied on him to replace it. Just yesterday, Ajax had forgotten to lock his room and Leo had stolen Ajax’s last box of pizza rolls. Only after he’d shared it out among his cronies did he bother to go out to buy groceries for the kitchen fridge. Ajax never opened that fridge if he could help it; Leo’s smirking glee and his dad’s attempts to guilt trip him were too much to bear.
Ajax’s long strides had taken him halfway across the parking lot away from the hardware store before something ripped on his back, and his notebooks and gear spilled out of a new hole in his canvas bag. The wind gusted and papers blew around him.
Ajax let the bag slide off his shoulder, staring down at the mess of his life blowing away. It was too much. He kicked a textbook so it sailed across the parking lot, and a notebook until it vomited sketches into the wind. He stared at the drawing of Meredith that fluttered by, then started ripping pages out of the rest of his notebooks and crumpling them up. Finally he took his cellphone and hurled it after the textbook, hearing the skitter of shattering plastics with immense satisfaction.
Then he left, no longer weighed down by school, by a girlfriend, by a phone that didn’t work. If his boss had glanced out the front window of the hardware store while Ajax was making a mess, he might not be weighed down by a job anymore, either. He’d strained a muscle in his leg kicking the textbook so hard, but whatever. He just didn’t care.
He limped over to the nearest bus stop and caught the 181 across town, where he bought himself dinner at a greasy spoon. He found himself doodling faces on the napkins while he waited for his food: his aunt, his grandmother, his mother. When he realized he was drawing Meredith again, he tossed the pen aside.
After Ajax ate, his leg still ached and he wasn’t ready to go home and face Leo and his Dad. Not today. So he headed over to the 8th Street Bridge, which was a place he always found conductive to brooding. Had Meredith used brooding in jerk bingo? He couldn’t remember.
On his way there, he realized somebody was trailing him. A tall girl, with short pale hair, one he’d never seen before. And he would have noticed if he had, because she seemed kind of hot from the glimpse he got when he jinked to get a better look. Only a glimpse, because she stepped into an alley.
But when he started moving again, there she was again.