Jeremy first noticed the window accidentally.
He was standing in Mr. Thompson’s dining room, thinking about what movie he could squeeze in before dinnertime. Usually a feature could fit between the end of school and anyone else getting home. HBO was showing the same 3 movies all week, but at different times. If Speed started at 1:50 today, it meant maybe Jeremy could finally see The Fifth Element in full at 3:55 PM — and as his mind wandered, he realized he was staring directly into the neighbor’s bathroom. The neighbor walked into his line of vision as if she were an oblivious tourist stepping into someone else’s photo. She had a small mole on her cheek. She had curly brown and blond hair haphazardly tied up in a bun. She was naked. Mr. Thompson’s dog, Lucy, was whining at Jeremy’s feet. Jeremy let Lucy tug on his pant leg while he watched the woman test the water with her hand. She got in and closed the warped glass behind her. Jeremy could still see the outline of her body, blurred and mangled, like switching to the squiggly porn channel. He rushed Lucy outside, back into the house, and tossed a bone-shaped treat at the floor in record time.
The house smelled like stale tea. There were now-creepy photos of the late Mrs. Thompson everywhere, and in the basement Mr. Thompson kept an old projector that Jeremy would admire for most of the half hour he was being paid to supposedly play with and feed Lucy. It was his last week with the dog, but Jeremy’s newfound distraction made him wish the job would last forever. He spent the rest of his required half hours at Mr. Thompson’s watching the woman shower.
The next week, Jeremy was disappointed. He had found the woman framed in that window four days in a row, but now, as Jeremy sat between the houses where he thought he’d get the clearest shot, she was nowhere to be found. He listened for the familiar sound of the shower turning on, drops beating against the tub like rain on a roof, but nothing came.
He looked down at the the bottom-left corner of his camcorder screen: 3:34 PM NOV 29, 1999. It was the correct time. Jeremy’s dad could never figure out how to change it — “Why do I need to see the goddamned date here anyway? The Christmas tree’s right there. Take a guess.” — Jeremy had figured out how to reset the date/time after scanning the manual and fiddling with the mini-DV camcorder for less than 5 minutes.
Jeremy stood up, his head dangerously in full view of both Mr. Thompson’s dining room window and the woman’s bathroom. He sneered and turned the camera on himself, flipped the LCD screen so he could see the face he was making. He gave an exaggerated frown, then held the camera at his hip and walked around the house as if he were casually meandering through a mall, looking into the windows of stores he had no interest in entering.
Jeremy walked to the end of the woman’s driveway, and waited. He turned the camera 90 degrees. — “Panning is super hard without a tripod.” — he’d insist whenever his brother Mark mocked his finished projects. He watched the image frustratingly float up and down over each compulsively placed recycling bin.
The squeal of tires startled him. A green Ford Maverick came to an abrupt stop at the center of Jeremy’s shot. An actor hitting his mark. Bass-filled rock was blaring so loudly in the car that the revving engine was barely audible. “There go those Duke boys again!” Jeremy’s dad would joke each time he saw the Maverick coming up the street, though it reminded Jeremy more of Steve McQueen’s Mustang in Bullitt. Jeremy zoomed in on the wide grill and saw white scratches on the paint below the bumper. The car had two round headlights that looked like old-timey flashbulbs. Surrounded by all the plastic bins and new houses, the vintage car looked especially out of place, like the DeLorean had just appeared on Jeremy’s street after hitting 88 miles an hour. At this distance, the close-up image on the screen became too shaky. Jeremy zoomed out, getting a wide shot of the tree-lined street framing the now-tiny car. The tires began spinning in place. The Maverick swerved and corrected itself before speeding toward Jeremy like one of his water rockets that curved slightly as it launched then fixed itself in the air.
Jeremy was laughing now, watching the car come hurtling down the street. It whipped by him, and Jeremy swiveled on the balls of his feet to follow it. He zoomed in on the Maverick’s license plate. The shot jiggled even more as his stomach pumped repeatedly against his elbows. His face was bright red. He was excited to the point of nervousness, like he might double over laughing and pass out right there in the neighbor’s yard.
“Gotcha.” Jeremy said.
A small shadow popped into the frame from the right and stuck itself under the tires of the Maverick. The object looked like someone had thrown it under the car intentionally, as if this were a high-speed chase and the cops had thrown down a row of spikes in front of their roadblock. Except the Maverick didn’t stop. It sped through a stop sign at the end of the block and cut around a corner to the right. Jeremy zoomed out. The shadow under the car was now a bright white lump in the center of the street.
Jeremy zoomed in on the object, and saw strands of white hair billowing upward with the sudden, forceful wind. Lucy, Mr. Thompson’s dog. Jeremy heard a clang from the open garage, and saw Mr. Thompson lugging his hefty body toward the street, putting all his weight on his heels so it looked as if he were on stilts and might fall forward onto his face. Mr. Thompson hobbled to the end of his driveway and yelped. His white beard mirrored the wisps of hair on the dog. He resembled some old viking Jeremy had learned about during his World History class. Mr. Thompson looked to his right after the vanished Maverick, then back, directly into the lens of Jeremy’s camcorder.
Jeremy, who had spent the last minute imagining himself a world-class documentarian, realized he might be in trouble. His palms sweat, and he swallowed. He kept Mr. Thompson’s confused face in frame. When Mr. Thompson took a single step forward, Jeremy snapped the screen shut and took off up the neighbor’s driveway. Jeremy jumped over a wooden fence into an adjacent yard where the Kopchick twins, both in puffy pink jackets, were doing something odd in the dirt with two naked Barbies. “Hey!” the girls shouted when Jeremy appeared on the ground in front of them. He started walking quickly through the yard, cradling the camcorder carefully like it was a bomb that could go off any second.
At dinner, Jeremy’s mom and dad grumbled at each other about his grandfather.
“What’s to be done? He can’t take care of himself in that big house alone.” His mom said.
“Well, we can’t take on any more responsibilities with the client list we have right now.” Jeremy’s dad responded.
Jeremy devoured the food in front of him and asked for seconds, even on his peas.
“You must have gotten some exercise!” Mrs. Lott said, while taking his plate to the kitchen. Jeremy gave an awkward half-laugh that exited his mouth like a hiss.
“What did they teach you down at that hippy school today, kid?” his dad asked.
“It’s the best school in the state, Richard.” His mother said from the next room.
“Sure, for dancers.”
“I’m sure you could go down there and whip their golf team into fighting shape, Mr. Machismo.”
“All I’m saying is the world doesn’t need another bunch of slacker smart-asses studying painting all day. Not when there are actual problems like this, this… Y2K thing. Some kid might solve it if the school took a second to show them how computers work.”
“Good news for us: nothing bad’s going to happen.”
“You don’t know that. No one knows. That’s the problem.”
“I heard it on NPR this morning. It’s nothing.”
Jeremy’s eyes shut involuntarily as he heard a fork scrape a plate. “I learned about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer today.”
“Never got to that one.” Jeremy’s dad picked up a roll and bit into it.
“It’s actually two books. The teacher’s going to read them to us for a whole block each day. It sounds fun.”
“Just don’t repeat any of the bad words, OK?” Jeremy’s mom said as she brought him a new plate of food.
Jeremy started his second helping, but paused when he heard the familiar scraping of a car’s grill as it jumped the too-high bump at the end of their driveway. A car door shut. Jeremy’s dad got up from the table, and walked to the kitchen with his plate. The backdoor opened and shut. Jeremy turned to see his older brother Mark standing in the doorway, wearing his favorite Nirvana shirt that hadn’t been washed in weeks. It smelled like old sweat and something musty Jeremy couldn’t identify. Mark swept his bangs to the side.
“Somebody’s late.” said their father without looking up from the stove as he made his second plate.
“Hope it’s not my girlfriend.” Mark said.
Jeremy snickered. He caught his father glaring at him from the kitchen, and looked down at the table.
Mr. Lott walked back into the dining room, sat down, and said “there’s a little more. Help yourself.”
Mark made himself a plate; macaroni & cheese, baked salmon, peas. He sat down next to Jeremy and stared at the plate, already bored. Mark lifted his fork and poked at the food like he was trying to keep a tiny fire lit.
“Not hungry?” Mr. Lott asked.
“I’m hungry.” Mark looked at his dad who did not look up from his dinner. “I skipped lunch and went to the library to fill out my application.”
“I can’t finish it.”
Their father let his fork land loudly against the plate. “Jesus. It’s not that hard. If you don’t focus, you’re going to end up with limited options for the next four years of your life.”
“If I even go…”
“Richard. Relax.” Mrs. Lott said.
“Fine. Why have another lawyer in the family when Mark can make plenty of money as a street musician?” Jeremy’s dad shoveled the last bit of macaroni & cheese to the side of his plate, then used his other hand to guide the forkful of food up to his mouth. He picked up his plate, then came around to everyone else at the table, and took their plates too.
Mark stared at Jeremy. Jeremy smiled. The expression on Mark’s face didn’t change. His eyes hung in place and it seemed like Mark’s brain didn’t process that Jeremy was there. Jeremy looked away and leaned back in his chair, trying to imitate his older brother’s posture.
A frantic knock at the front door startled everyone. Other than solicitors and the mailman, the front door was barely used. Jeremy’s dad looked out the window at the black night, wincing like an alarm clock had begun buzzing.
Jeremy sunk in his chair. Mark popped a small cube of chewing gum into his mouth.
Mr. Lott opened the door. Jeremy could hear Mr. Thompson sniff like he had a cold. Before Jeremy’s dad could say a word, Mr. Thompson went into a tirade about “that damned car” and “your spoiled kids” which Mr. Lott, considering his usual straight-to-screaming temperament exhibited at the boys’ soccer games, seemed to be taking in like a story on CNN rather than something that was about to ruin his night. Their father had a calculated rage that, to the boys, seemed disingenuous. “After all, if he can control when and where he’s mad, he’s not really that mad, is he?” Mark had explained on the one occasion Jeremy had been grounded (for ordering Pay-Per-View without asking). Jeremy was still nervous whenever his father raised his voice.
“He is irresponsible. Reckless. That car needs to be taken away.”
“OK. Tell me what you think happened, Frank.”
“It’s not what I think happened. It damn well happened, Richard. Your boys killed my dog.”
“Dog killing. Doesn’t sound like them.”
“Don’t get smart, Rich. You’ll see.” Mr. Thompson stepped into the dining room and looked around the ceiling at the crown molding like he was thinking about buying the place. Then he looked directly at Mark, who wouldn’t look up from the floor. Their father stood with his arms crossed and his eyebrows raised like a daytime TV judge waiting for an explanation from anyone in the room.
Mr. Thompson shouted with a finger pointed at Mark: “This one comes careening down the road in that jalopy every afternoon at the exact same time, like the whole neighborhood is his own personal Nascar track.”
“Oh, Mark. We talked about this after your ticket…” Mrs. Lott started.
Mr. Lott glared at her. Mrs. Lott gave a thumbs up to her husband and smirked.
Mr. Thompson continued: “And he finally did it. He ran over my Lucy.”
Mark’s head shot up, and he looked directly at his dad, but still wouldn’t make eye-contact with Mr. Thompson. “I didn’t. I swear to God. I wouldn’t do that.”
“He hit Lucy and kept on going. Damned lucky it wasn’t a person. Found her in the street when I came out to sand a shelf in the garage.”
“Wait, wait, wait, wait-” Mr. Thompson said like he always did when something dawned on him that made him angry. He always got through four “waits” and if he hit five, that meant business. Still, even if he made it to five, not much happened except that he got louder. “You didn’t actually see my son’s car? You’re here on some hunch that my kid ran over your dog? Is that what I’m hearing?”
“You’re quite the lawyer, aren’t you, Richard?”
There was a pause where it seemed like Mr. Thompson and Mr. Lott might go at it right there in the dining room, letting whoever won the fight decide who killed whose dog. Before that could happen, Mr. Thompson spun around and stared into Jeremy’s eyes and pointed. “I didn’t have to see it because Mr. Scorsese here got the whole thing on film.”
Jeremy blinked. He stared at Mr. Thompson like he was a teacher explaining an Algebra problem that Jeremy couldn’t quite grasp.
Mr. Thompson squeezed his eyebrows together and turned away. “And I came here to talk to you as a courtesy before I call the police and have them haul these little runts to jail.”
“All right, Frank, that’s enough.” Mrs. Lott was stood up. “You should go home.”
“Dad?” Jeremy said. His mother’s face darted in his direction.
“I did see it happen.”
Jeremy had the floor now. It made his voice tremble to have everyone listening. Other than required class presentations, he was rarely commanding an entire room to listen to what he had to say.
“It was a black car. A big one. Like a Hummer. They were playing loud music, and didn’t stop. It seemed like they didn’t even know they did it. Like… it was like definitely an accident and they would have stopped had they known.” Jeremy looked at Mark then down at the table. “They weren’t bad. They just didn’t know…I’m sorry about Lucy, Mr. Thompson.”
Mark looked up at Jeremy, then up to his dad who was sighing through his nose.
“Jeremy,” Mr. Thompson said in a soft voice, “adults know when you’re lying. We’re like Santa Claus.”
Jeremy and Mark both stifled a giggle. Between Mr. Thompson’s white beard and pot belly, the boys routinely referred to him as Old Saint Nick.
“It’s true.” Jeremy insisted.
“I saw you. I saw you with the camera.”
Jeremy, unfazed, continued: “I know, but… there isn’t a recording. You see…I ran out of tape awhile ago. I’ve been experimenting with the camera, like, seeing if I could get it to do different things. I don’t like wasting the tapes. My allowance only lets me get two a month, tops. I save those for the stuff I actually want to shoot, but, like, otherwise, I take the camera out for the… the…”
Everyone in the room waited for Jeremy to finish.
“The mise en scene.”
“You know, like, the lighting and stuff. I don’t record anything. I just play around with it then talk to Mr. Clark during Cinema block about techniques I learned. Like, like if you step backward and zoom forward you can make that effect from Vertigo when he looks at the steps. We watch the clips in class. It’s an elective at Fairmont. Mark took it too.”
“Yeah.” Mark said. “They make you play with a camera for two whole blocks sometimes.”
“Yeah, and so. Yeah.” Jeremy said. “I saw it happen. I saw the car and I saw what happened. I saw Mr. Thompson too, but I guess I was so scared those guys in the car might come back and break the camera or worse… I panicked and ran away. I’ll show you.”
Jeremy walked into the living room and pulled the camera’s battery from its charge port. He walked the battery over to the camcorder on his dad’s desk, and clicked it in. The camera made a bright beep like a Game Boy turning on. Jeremy walked the camera over to Mr. Thompson, and pushed record. He opened the little fold-out LCD screen and kept hitting the red button. A message in white letters showed up over Mrs. Lott’s face: “NO TAPE.”
“See?” Jeremy popped open the empty camera to show no tape was in the camera. “I didn’t record it.”
Mr. Thompson had tears in his eyes. He wailed: “He’s lying, Richard. He knows what happened to Lucy. That dog. My wife’s dog… he’s lying to us!” Mr. Thompson went to grab the camcorder, but Jeremy quickly hid it behind his back.
Jeremy’s dad put a hand on Mr. Thompson’s back.
“All right. I think that’s enough for tonight.”
Mr. Lott led Mr. Thompson to the door, and they muttered to each other.
“I’ll talk to them. If they know anything, I guarantee they’ll tell me.”
They could all hear Mr. Thompson sobbing as the front door closed.
Mr. Lott stepped into the dining room.
“Either of you want to explain what that was all about?”
Their parents went to bed sufficiently convinced of the boys’ innocence and, moreover, persuaded that every adult on the street had it in for their kids (so much so that the Lott & Lott legal team’s official word of advice was: “if the cops come knocking, find us first and we’ll handle it”). Once it was clear both parents were asleep, Mark opened Jeremy’s door without asking, and shut it behind him.
“So where is it?”
Jeremy was sitting at his desk, a single lamp and his computer monitor lighting the room. Mark moved around in the darkness, crawling over Jeremy’s bed to the cubby hole where Mark had stored something in a cigar box and paid Jeremy $10 a week to never mention to Mom and Dad. Mark took out slips of paper, a magazine, and a deceptive Warheads bag filled with orange candy-like pills (half of Jeremy’s friend’s prescribed dose of Adderall).
“I said… where is it?”
Jeremy turned to his computer and minimized a window.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I saw you, you little dickhead. You filmed it.”
Mark was looming in front of Jeremy’s chair. The hood of his black Misfits sweatshirt swept over his head so he looked like a hip, acne-covered Grimm Reaper.
“Oh, that.” Jeremy said as if it was something they’d already settled years ago. “Yeah, I know where that is.”
“Give it to me.”
Jeremy swallowed. This conversation was already the longest one Jeremy and Mark had had in months. Mark seemed to know his way around Jeremy’s room, but try as he might to remember a time when they were both in it together, Jeremy was at a loss. Jeremy felt like asking a number of big questions all at once, but decided it wasn’t the best time.
“Give it to me or I swear to God I’ll hit you every time I see you. I’ll hit you so hard, you’ll beg me to take the tape. Every time I see you in the hallway at school, I’ll fucking sock you in the stomach or backhand your tiny balls. Something that won’t bruise so you’ll never be able to prove it.”
Mark was holding his little brother by the collar now, staring him in the face. Jeremy was genuinely afraid. Mark loosened his grip, and let Jeremy reach for his computer.
Jeremy tapped the space bar, making a window pop up on his computer. He tapped the space bar again, and a video started playing. The roar of the Maverick sounded like the tinny whir of a motorbike coming from his computer’s speakers, the squeal of the tires like an old cartoon.
“Turn it off. Turn it the fuck off.”
Jeremy tapped the space bar and the video stopped, a freeze frame of the side of the car made it seem like there were two Mavericks: the real one on the left, and a fragmented green aura of the car in front of it, like the future ghost of the car was striving to free itself from the real one so it could kill Mr. Thompson’s dog faster.
“OK.” said Jeremy, “But I have a few copies already.”
Mark let out a stuttered breath as if he were about to cry, the same way Jeremy sounded after Mark pressed his face in the snow for a full minute yelling “say you’re sorry” when Jeremy took a cheap shot at the back of his head with an ice-filled snowball last week. Mark sat down on the bed.
“It was a long afternoon. I had lots of time to decide how to keep the video safe.”
Mark looked up at Jeremy and shook his head.
“What do you want for it?”
Jeremy stood up and walked to his cubby hole. He took out a large yellow legal pad. “I have a few ideas.”
Jeremy knew Mark could get his hands on the first few items on his list in one trip to the strip mall on Detroit Road. Some, however, Mark insisted were too time-consuming or downright vague. Mark met with Jeremy on Tuesday to respond to each item:
-A lava lamp? “Sure.”
-6 pack Mike’s Hard Lemonade. “Some cultures already consider you a man, so party on.”
-One nice cigar. “OK, Big Shot.”
-Tickets to an R-rated movie of my choosing. “Ugh. Fine.”
-Be nice to me at school, and eat lunch with me at least once a week. “OK, but preferably Fridays when the older kids leave school grounds for lunch.”
-One trip to Goody Two-Shoes’ Indoor Go-Kart Arena. “What if I just drove you around in my car real fast?”
-Anything else I think of. “Wait. What?”
Mark looked up from the list at Jeremy. Jeremy was sitting on his bed, a big vintage poster for The Sting looming behind him.
“This is bullshit.” said Mark, putting the list down on the bed.
“You have to.” Jeremy said.
“It’s not really a list of demands if the last one is ‘anything.’”
“Anything I think of.” Jeremy corrected Mark.
“Right. You want to put any limit on that, hoss? Or am I indefinitely your servant?”
“It would get suspicious if you constantly took me places.”
Jeremy thought for a moment.
“That night you forgot to pick me up from Yearbook Club…”
“I said sorry! I was stoned and I didn’t want to drive and hurt anyone. OK? You gonna lord this over me again, Mom?”
“No. Umm. How long were you grounded?”
“A week. I missed Green Day for that.”
“Well, I’d say killing a dog is worth twice the punishment, right?”
“Great. Then it’s settled. This list, plus you have to do anything I ask for two weeks starting…yesterday.”
“Wait- I have band practice, and college applications, and the gay-ass student government after school. Not to mention Jenny. I can’t just be here at the drop of a hat.”
Jeremy pulled a pencil from his pocket and added something to the list.
“I’ll be reasonable.”
On the first Friday night of the deal, they went to the movies: Jeremy, Mark, and Jenny (Mark’s girlfriend, “the one with bomb-ass tits” as one of the boys at the lunch table called her.).
Mark had told their mom they were seeing the new Toy Story, and “since Jenny wants to see it anyway, I figured we should all go, my treat.”
“Isn’t that sweet?” Mrs. Lott said. “Have fun, you guys!”
They had all piled into the Maverick when Jenny, as she wrapped her seatbelt against the center of her cleavage, said: “This is so badass! Your first R-rated movie. Blair Witch.”
“I’ve actually seen a few.” Jeremy said.
“Ooooo! Big man back here. I’m glad you’re going so I don’t get too scared.”
Jeremy gave Jenny a huge smile when she twisted her neck to look at him. She turned away as the car started, and did a little drumroll on the dashboard. “Woohoo! Here we go!” Jeremy’s heart pounded.
On the way back from the movie, they argued about whether what they had just seen was really a horror film.
“It was boring. It made me dizzy watching it.” Mark said.
“I totally freaked at the end!” Jenny said.
“Me too.” said Jeremy from the backseat. “I found it really interesting. I’ve been reading online about how the director wouldn’t warn the actors about what would happen next. There were rumors that it really happened but it didn’t. They’re actors.”
“Wow. I got chills imagining that happening to me.” Jenny said. Without turning her head she reached her hand back for Jeremy’s knee and grabbed it in an attempt to scare him. “Boo!”
Jeremy tensed his leg muscles as he watched her hand slide back to her lap, then flop lazily onto Mark’s thigh, high enough that it looked like she might try to reach into his pocket. “Were you scared, babe?”
“No!” Mark said, annoyed. “It wasn’t scary. It was just…weird.”
Jeremy knew alcohol and movie tickets were easy for Mark to get, but he still had to give him his allowance to pay for the stuff. “I’m not rolling in it either.” Mark had said. “A little cash might help.”
The potential dwindling of Jeremy’s “Fun Fund” didn’t stop him from asking to go to the Goody Two-Shoes’ Indoor Go-Kart Arena on the first Saturday of the deal, a trip that might mean scratching the cigar and lava lamp off the list. Mark had packed a Nalgene full of “the most potent screwdriver ever conceived by man” and Jeremy, Jenny, and Mark all took long swigs of it before entering the building. Jeremy drank as much as he could, assuming they’d have to leave the bottle in the car but Mark, as if he didn’t care who knew he was drinking, carried the bottle inside. Mark consistently beat everyone at the track, and all three of them playfully debated how it was possible, taking turns to argue and sip from the Nalgene while waiting in line for the next race.
“It’s the car you pick!”
“Yeah, it’s definitely the fastest.”
“I weigh down my car more than you! I have the handicap. Y’all can’t handle my skillllzzz.” Mark let out the last word with an odd drawl that made all three of them giggle. Even when Mark chose the “slower” car that Jeremy insisted he take, Mark still won every race. Despite Jeremy’s mock frustration — “you cheat! I don’t know how but you cheated!” — the day felt like a fast-paced and perfect movie montage.
CUT TO: the arcade side of the fume-filled arena, where an exhausted and dizzy Jeremy, who’d managed to squeeze in two elephant ears and a full bag of Sour Patch Kids on top of his determined gulps of the screwdriver, threw up on the thousand or so tickets they’d won playing Skee-Ball.
“This’ll help.” Mark said, immediately handing the open Nalgene bottle to Jeremy. Jeremy, in a confused stupor, reached for the bottle. Mark pulled it away: “I’m fucking with you. No more. For either of you.” Jeremy looked up to see Jenny spinning around, arms outstretched like an oblivious flower child, next to a row of motorcycle games. A security guard for the park stepped from behind a black curtain, and looked at the boys. Mark twisted the lid of the bottle shut, grabbed Jeremy by the arm, and marched toward Jenny. “Time to go.”
The security guard pursued them, speed walking toward the exit without a word. The second Mark flung open the doors, they all began sprinting for the car. “Get to the chopper!” Mark yelled, dumping the Nalgene behind him on the asphalt. Jenny and Jeremy got in the back while Mark played chauffeur, all three of them sharing a nervous and giggly pant as the Maverick roared to life. Mark handed Jeremy a stick of gum, and yelled “buckle up!” before swerving out of the parking spot, pushing the pedal to the floor like he was still on the Go-Kart track.
Mark had gotten into the habit of having lunch at Jeremy’s table even on days he wasn’t asked to come. It seemed Mark needed to blow off steam about the college admissions process, and gave unsolicited advice to the other 7th graders who happened to be within earshot. He also would ask Jeremy what was on “the grocery list” that day so he could get a head start after school. Bespectacled Tom Martin, who Jeremy didn’t like sitting next to since he only wanted to talk about action movies at lunch, started a rumor that Mark would get anything for anyone who asked, and kept repeating to Mark every time he sat at the table that he wanted the new Pokémon Snap game for Nintendo 64.
“Why don’t you ask Santa, you twerp?” Jeremy said.
“I already asked your mom. She looks like fat-ass Mrs. Claus.”
“Wow, Tom. That was almost funny.”
Jeremy noticed everyone seemed comfortable with Mark sitting at the table, even the teachers who thought it was a sweet gesture for a senior to sit with his brother during the last few months they had at the same school. Jeremy wasn’t always pleased, especially on days when Mark brought up issues he was having with Jenny.
“She seems to want to do long distance, but it sounds whack.”
Tom Martin, who no one was even talking to, responded by quoting his favorite movie, Jurassic Park: “Like Doctor Malcolm says: ‘Life finds a way.’”
Jeremy rolled his eyes.
The Fun Fund had dwindled to nearly nothing.
On Thursday afternoon, three days before the end of the deal, Jeremy walked into Mark’s room and looked through his CDs. Mark kept them in boxes he had built himself in Wood Shop. The CDs were pristine, like they didn’t go a day without being dusted. Mark sat facing away from his computer, playing his acoustic guitar: “Take whatever you need, dude. I can’t drive you anywhere right now.” He shrugged his right shoulder at the computer without looking at it: “Essays.” Mark strummed the chord progression from a Pixies song Jeremy recognized from the end of Fight Club.
Jeremy silently stepped around the piles of dirty shirts and jeans, enough to clothe the entire neighborhood, if everyone didn’t mind looking like they were headed to Warped Tour. He had sometimes peeked into Mark’s room and seen a pile of laundry, but never realized until gaining his newfound freedom to enter the room that he could barely see the floor. He stared at the closet door at the foot of Mark’s bed. He opened the door. More clothes fell out.
“A little nosey.”
Jeremy inspected the inside of the closet.
“Why don’t you have shelves in here?”
“Not orderly enough for you, Mom?”
Mark plucked a few strings, liked what he heard, and tried it again. Jeremy looked at the shelves over the bed, lined with model cars Mark had put together himself when he was Jeremy’s age. Jeremy walked over to the bookshelf full of CDs, and took a rack down.
“Careful.” Mark said without looking up.
“Mark, I have one more item and then we can be done.”
“Well,” Mark said putting the guitar on the floor, “I’m getting nowhere with this essay so we might as well go for a drive. Where to? Go-Karts?”
“No. I’m thinking of setting up my camera…in here.”
Mark stood up and walked toward Jeremy. “I know exactly what you want, and I’ll fucking kill you just for asking.”
Jeremy stood staring at him.
“I said ‘No’ you little turd.” Mark put his face so close to Jeremy’s that their noses almost touched. “It’s not enough to constantly gawk at her?”
Jeremy said nothing. Mark spun his little brother around by the shoulders and grabbed one of his wrists and held it behind his back. Jeremy shook and breathed deeply but didn’t scream.
“I’ll tell mom right now. I’ll show her.”
“I’ll tell them what you did and they’ll be so busy finding a shrink for you, they’ll forget to punish me.”
“MOM!” Jeremy shouted. Then again as if he were crying “Mommmm!!”
Mark let him go. They heard plodding footsteps at the bottom of the stairs. Their father’s.
“What was that?” Mr. Lott yelled up at them.
“Nothing.” Mark replied. “It’s settled.”
“I want to see what it’s like.” Jeremy said.
“For starters, you’re way too young.”
“I am not. I’ve seen it in a hundred movies.”
“Well, go back and watch them, creep.”
Mark sat down at his desk and sighed.
“What’s wrong?” Jeremy asked.
Mark grimaced. “The other thing is…and I can’t believe I’m telling you this but…now that we’re such good friends: Jenny and I have never done it.”
“We’re not ready. That’s why I know you’re definitely not ready to watch it.”
Jeremy thought of asking how far they’d gone. Had they tried oral stuff? Or were they not even that far? Was Mark lying? It seemed so unlikely they had never had sex. They acted, in Jeremy’s mind at least, like they’d been doing it the entire time they dated.
“Well, do you want to do it?”
“Yeah. Of course I want to.”
Jeremy pulled out a sheet of yellow paper from his pocket.
“I think I can make it happen.”
On Saturday night, a day before the end of the deal, their mom and dad went out to eat dinner with friends. Every time they went, they came back an hour later than anticipated. As per usual, even though unsupervised boy/girl hangouts in the house were frowned upon, the rules were bent by both parents — “He is, after all, practically an adult,” “They’d just try it in that dirty car if we said no.”) — and Mark was permitted to invite Jenny over.
Jeremy had spent the afternoon giving Mark the rundown of every romantic comedy he’d ever seen. “You have to make her feel special. And you have to open up emotionally. It’s easy. You say how you feel, and you…you actually feel things for her, so, yeah. Easy.” Jeremy had convinced himself he could seduce anyone with the lines he’d written down. “One thing I’ve noticed is that if you do something big and dramatic like…say you’ll go to school wherever she goes or write a song for her! She’ll know you think she’s really special and go for it. Have you ever seen Say Anything? It’s a classic.” Jeremy paced Mark’s room, reading his notes about all the missteps teenage boys made in movies like Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You. “You can’t go for too much too soon, and you definitely need to be ready to have a serious-sounding conversation before it happens.” Jeremy put together deeper “what do relationships mean, anyway?” talking points from When Harry Met Sally and Reality Bites for Mark to memorize in case he needed to add some level of logic to his grand professions of love for Jenny. “This will work. This will work.” Jeremy insisted. “She’ll be so caught up. It’s beautiful.”
As soon as Mark had confirmed Jenny was on her way, Jeremy sat in the center of the couch in the living room, staring at the TV. A barrage of Spongebob, followed by older cartoons that would usually bore Jeremy. He kept watching. He sat like a monk. He didn’t move when Mark ruffled the papers and asked: “What if she’s seen some of these? Or can tell I’m faking it?” He didn’t move when the doorbell rang. He didn’t even react when Jenny walked in and said “Hey there, Scrappy-Doo!” and tousled his hair. In that moment, all he did was blush and squeeze the camcorder remote in his hand.
A full hour before Mr. and Mrs. Lott were scheduled to arrive home, Jeremy heard sobbing. He heard Mark’s bedroom door open and then the soft, quick footsteps of Jenny coming down the carpeted stairs. In a panic, Jeremy threw the camcorder remote into the drawer next to the couch that stored the coasters and playing cards. He threw himself down on the couch and pretended to be asleep. The front door opened, then closed. Jeremy heard Mark let out a low howl. A single loud stomp shook the glass on the ceiling lamp in the dining room. Jeremy flinched and walked quickly to the kitchen to find a knife or maybe a big pan to defend himself. He stood in silence with his hand on the utensils drawer. After a full minute of listening to Mark sniffle, he heard an angry grunt and Mark’s door slamming shut.
Jeremy ran up the stairs, and opened the door to Mark’s room.
Mark was lying on his bed, facing the wall. He was sighing deeply. His computer, which was playing the love song from Ghost, had shut off its screensaver. The room was lit only by the streetlights outside.
“What happened? Did she see the camera?”
“Fuck you, Jeremy. Get out.”
“She saw it, and she’s mad? Does she know it was me?”
“Shut up, Jeremy. Shut up. Get out of my room.”
Jeremy licked his lips. He took a step toward the bookshelf, and the floor under the carpet creaked. Mark, with a deliberate rustle of his sheets, was on his feet charging toward his brother.
“Wait-” Jeremy said as Mark lunged to the right and straight at the bookshelf. Jeremy reached for the camcorder, and Mark slapped Jeremy’s hand away like the nun with a ruler their dad always claimed he had to deal with when he was in school: “a quick, no-bullshit slap.” Jeremy pulled his hand back with a whimper.
“Here…Here!” Mark was opening the cassette compartment, the camcorder let out a brief high-pitched whir, then the whole thing split open at the middle like a Transformer. Mark pulled out the mini-DV tape, and pushed it into Jeremy’s chest. “You can have fun jerking off to that.”
Jeremy held the tape to his chest with his right hand, then without speaking, reached with his left hand for the camcorder. Mark hit his brother on the shoulder as hard as he could.
Jeremy let out a yelp, and followed it up with a wincing inward breath through his teeth like he’d just stubbed his toe.
“That’s mine!” Jeremy pleaded.
“No. It’s not yours. It belongs to the family, and right now its off limits to perverts who force people to do things they don’t want to do.”
Mark pulled Jeremy by the collar into the hallway, and threw him against the wall. He slammed his door again.
Jeremy swallowed. “Well, I can’t actually watch the tape without the camera.”
Mark opened the door, and flipped his overhead light on. There was a menacing grin on Mark’s face. He handed the camcorder to Jeremy. Then Mark’s face went slack. “Never speak to me again.” He calmly closed the door.
Jeremy watched the whole 45 minute tape in one sitting. He plugged the camera into his computer so it played on the large monitor and through the tiny LCD fold-out screen at the same time. The video opened on a bright room, Jenny muttering something about a noise she heard coming from the shelf. Jeremy realized this meant she had heard the camera powering on. He held his breath, then let it out when she seemed to give up on the line of questioning and started to make out with Mark. Jenny seemed to get to it quick. The two barely talked before it all started. Jeremy found this troubling, and also didn’t love the lighting. He’d insisted that the overhead light stay on the whole time, but now realized, as his brother laid himself on top of the girl in the bed, that he was casting a large shadow over her face and body. Mark started to put his hand under Jenny’s shirt, and just before he could pull the whole thing off, an image Jeremy had been daydreaming about for months, Jenny interrupted: “Wait.” She pushed Mark by the chest so he was sitting up on the bed next to her. “I have something.” Jenny looked through her bag and pulled out a tiny object that looked like a piece of individually wrapped candy. He parted his lips and leaned in closer to the screen.
“I want this. I want it to be with you.” Jenny said.
Mark looked directly into the camera on the bookshelf. He stood stood up and walked toward it.
“Oh, did I scare you, big guy?” Jenny said in a fake pouty voice. “No big woop. It’s only my virginity.”
“I- I need to…um.” Mark turned back around.
Jeremy swallowed hard.
“Please. I love you. I want to be with you. I want this to happen…with you.” Jenny said.
“I — um…”
Mark looked at the camera again, then back at Jenny: “I’m just not ready.”
“Fuck you, Mark.” Jenny said, throwing the condom back into her bag. She sat up and fixed her shirt, then started to tie her hair back, and stood up from the bed.
In an eerie moment that Jeremy had mistakenly created a number of times while trying to synch two voice tracks in the editing room at school, Jeremy uttered aloud a confused “What?” at the exact moment Mark said the word in the video.
Jenny continued: “Every guy is ready. You’re ready. I know it. You’re just worried that it will make this relationship serious and you’ll actually have to try dating me next year when we’re at school. You’re not ready to commit to me.”
“I- I… I don’t even know what I’m doing next year.”
“No shit. You don’t even know what you’re doing tomorrow. You let your little brother decide what we did for the past month. That’s how scared you are.”
“That’s not- I was just- I wanted to hang out with him before I leave.”
“Then why couldn’t you do the same for me? We still could have split at the end of school if you really wanted to. All I needed was for you to show me you care now. But you don’t.” Jenny was crying. She walked over to Mark, who stood like a statue. She wrapped her arms around his so that all he could do was bow his head and bend his elbows to wrap his hands partway around her back. “Goodbye, Mark.”
Jenny walked out of frame, and Mark stood there until the sound of her footsteps and the front door closing had ended. Mark turned around and looked into the lens of the camera. Tears ran down his face as he lifted the camera up — “just like Blair Witch!” — Jeremy thought. Mark fiddled with the back of the camera and then stomped his feet in frustration. He dropped the camera into a pile of clothes. The overhead light switched off, and it took a second to refocus on Mark’s legs as he marched back toward the camera. The screen went black.
Jeremy leaned back in his chair and muttered: “Awesome.”
“What’re you watching, kid?” Jeremy’s dad stood in the doorway of his room.
Jeremy let out a shriek, and his hand darted for the ESC key, which he repeatedly tapped until the desktop appeared on the computer’s monitor.
“Uh oh! Must be something good.” Mr. Lott let out a chuckle, and walked down the hall. “Go to bed.”
On Sunday morning, the final day of the deal, Jeremy walked into Mark’s room. Mark had a large textbook opened on his desk. The floor of the room had been completely cleared of his clothes. The carpet had been vacuumed. Mark was wearing a brand new plaid shirt covered by a navy blue sweater with one of the little alligators on it.
Mark turned his head to reveal a new haircut, he seemed alert and ready to speak with Jeremy, like the teachers at school who left their office doors open during free blocks. Mark raised his eyebrows, waiting for Jeremy to say something. Jeremy half-expected to hear Mark make that terrible screeching noise Donald Sutherland makes at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. “Who are you and what have you done with the real Mark?” Jeremy wanted to say.
“I have some ideas for the next time you have Jenny over.”
Mark swiveled around in his chair, nostrils flaring, ready to stand up. “Dude, seriously?”
Jeremy took a step back and put his hands up.
“Here’s the new rule,” Mark said, “you don’t talk to me. No more alcohol, no more movies, no more anything. Unless Mom and Dad are in the room with us, I don’t want to hear your voice. There’s a wall, and it starts at my doorway. You do not have permission to pass it. If you see me in the hall at school, you don’t know me. We’re done.”
“Fine. If you don’t want my advice on how to fix things with Jenny…”
“There’s nothing to fix, Jeremy. It’s over. The deal’s off. Jenny’s gone. It’s actually nice. I don’t have to pretend to like her music anymore or act like we’re in the movie Titanic or whatever. It’s done. I’m by myself. Everything’s fine. Now, please. Get out of my room. I’d like to finish this essay.” Mark continued typing.
“I want the car.” Jeremy said.
“That’s great, Jeremy. It’s all yours.”
“I’m serious. I want the car. That’s the last thing on the list. You have to tell Mom and Dad you want me to have it when I turn sixteen.”
Mark stood up. He looked as though he’d grown a foot overnight. He lifted his arm and pointed at the window, letting his finger hang in the air wordlessly like the ghost of Christmas Future pointing at Scrooge’s grave.
Jeremy stepped toward the window and looked outside at the empty driveway.
“Where is it?”
Their father called from the hallway: “Jeremy, could I speak with you for a moment?” Even though he had made his request softly, it startled Jeremy. Mark patted Jeremy on his bruised shoulder.
“I had to, buddy. Sorry.” Mark smiled and sat back down in his chair.
“Jeremy.” his father raised his voice in frustration. “Your room. Now.”
Jeremy felt like he was about to throw up. His father sat at his desk and shook the computer’s mouse trying to get the computer to wake up. He looked too big for the entire desk, like he was a grown kid sitting at a Little Tikes kitchen table.
“Why is this not working?”
“I turned it off.”
Jeremy slumped down onto his bed. He checked to see if anything was sticking out of the cubby hole.
“I cleared everything out of there, don’t worry.” Mr. Lott said, as he spun the chair around to face Jeremy.
Jeremy swallowed and thought about every cop show he’d seen where the perp asks for a lawyer, but realized in a single awful moment that his father was the only lawyer available to him. He also happened to be the judge and jury. “It’s curtains for, Jeremy…curtains.”
His father leaned forward, trying to make eye-contact with Jeremy who was staring at the floor.
“Jeremy. Look at me. You’re not in trouble. OK? Not yet, anyhow.”
“I need you to tell me if there are any copies of that tape.”
Jeremy looked up to see his father sighing deeply through his nose, his chin sticking forward like he was trying to get a piece of something out of his teeth with his tongue.
“No more bullshit. Your brother told us everything last night.”
“What do you mean?”
Mr. Lott laughed. “You’re a smart kid. But I’m tired. You filmed your brother hitting a dog with his car, and I want to know if you have any more copies of it. Could I be any clearer? I found the tape and already broke it and threw it in the trash, along with your camcorder. We don’t have to talk about what else I found on that tape or what was in your little hidey-hole over there. All I want to know is if there are other copies of that video.”
“I told you. I-I never filmed that.”
“Wait, wait, wait, wait, WAIT.” Jeremy’s father slammed his fist down on the desk with the final word, making a bunch of colored pencils jump up and land slightly off from where they began like the startling conclusion to every Perfection game. His father stood up and grabbed Jeremy by the arm. “You’re telling me your brother made up a story that he killed a dog, then made up another story about you blackmailing him? And then I imagined I saw the whole thing on tape? Is that what you’re telling me?” His father was pulling on his arm every few words to emphasize his point.
“I don’t know!”
Jeremy’s dad threw him on the bed, and walked to the door.
“I’m not letting one mistake ruin your brother’s future because his brother is some kind of sick…voyeur. If there is a copy of that video, it better not see the light of day or it’ll be your ass. Do you understand me?”
Jeremy nodded, his head scraping against his pillow.
Mr. Lott walked out of the room without another word. Jeremy stayed coiled up on his bed waiting for his father to come back and dole out his punishment, or perhaps, like every dad on TV, come back in the room to reveal, in the gentlest of voices, what the real lesson of this whole ordeal was: that it was OK to be curious, it was OK to try what the older kids are doing, it was OK to get in trouble sometimes, as long as you do the right thing in the end. But his father never said those things. That was TV. Jeremy stayed in bed until his mother called upstairs to say it was time for dinner. A painful quiet covered most of the meal, like the full minute of silence in a French movie Jeremy had watched in Cinema class.
No punishment came. The end of the year marked a new semester at school, and Jeremy decided it would be a sign of good faith to switch from Cinema Class to Wood Shop. He created his own self-exile after school, as if he actually had been grounded for a full month. He barely watched TV. He came home after school, did his homework, then read a book until dinner.
Of course, by the end of January or so, Mark’s strict “don’t talk to me” rule loosened up. Mark would speak to Jeremy about plans he had for next year depending on what school he got into. Mark even gave Jeremy a few of his CDs for Christmas — “I’m tired of hearing that techno shit coming from your room.” — Occasionally, the brothers would even have a brief heart-to-heart about teachers Mark had in the past that Jeremy had inherited. — “One time we all walked out of Mr. Cassel’s English Class. We didn’t say anything. He’s deaf in one ear from Vietnam, you know. We waited until he was writing something on the board and then all snuck out. It was so funny.” — Mostly, though, when Mark wasn’t out with his friends, he was in his room with his door locked.
Jeremy ate lunch every day next to Tom Martin, who was easy to hang out with even if he did berate Jeremy about how he’d never played any of the Final Fantasy games. “What do you even do with your time?” Tom would ask. They became close enough by March that Mrs. Martin offered to drive Jeremy, Tom, and both Kopchick twins to the movies one night when the girls asked both boys on their “first double date.” They saw Toy Story 2, and right when Stinky Pete sabotages Woody’s escape, a moment Jeremy did not see coming, Laurie Kopchick turned and kissed Jeremy on the mouth for a full ten seconds. She squeezed his hand tightly, and Jeremy was annoyed to find he had trouble paying attention to the rest of the movie.
One day in April, after the deal had been over and done with for so long that it seemed like a dream, Jeremy walked home from a track meet and saw Mr. Thompson for the first time in months. He was washing his car, and though Jeremy was at least a full football field’s length away from him and most of the old man’s body was blocked by the hood of a beige Buick, Jeremy could tell Mr. Thompson had lost weight. A lot of weight. The dark circles under his eyes seemed to cover half his face. Mr. Thompson waved a limp hose over the car listlessly, as if he’d just gotten up from a nap and immediately dragged himself outside to do this chore. Mr. Thompson looked up at Jeremy. Jeremy shot up his hand and smiled. Mr. Thompson dropped the hose and let water run down the driveway in long, winding rivers. He turned away from Jeremy, and walked into his garage.
Jeremy opened the side door and found his whole family huddled in the kitchen. Mark was standing with his back to the sink, holding a letter. Jeremy’s mother and father hung on Mark’s shoulders like competing cartoon consciences. Mark read: “We hope you’re as pleased as we are to have you at Northwestern this fall. Go Wildcats!” Jeremy’s mom was crying, and she pulled Mark into a hug. Jeremy’s dad grabbed the letter as Jeremy stepped through the door.
“He did it.” Mr. Lott said, waving the letter in Jeremy’s face. “You’re next, kid.”