“Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County” (Excerpt)

Chapter One: Declin Ostrander
 
I need to shave, I thought, rubbing my chin as I leaned into the rearview mirror.

Sparse hairs covered my neck, encroaching on the soft edges of my jaw, looking more like a hand-knitted scarf than a beard. But maybe I could grew a beard out, the facial hair making me look older, more mature — girls liked guys who were more mature, that’s why they went gaga for hunks on motorcycles. Or maybe they preferred boy band aesthetics: shaved legs, faces, and chests, astronomically high-pitched voices.

My expertise for what attracted or did not attract teenage girls matched my knowledge of interplanetary astrophysics.

Nil.

Exhaling firmly, I pushed the mirror askew and settled into the passenger’s seat.

“Stop touching the mirror. I’m trying to drive.”

My father glanced at me, beating his palms against the steering wheel to a static-garbled hip-hop station I knew he hated.

“When was the last time you shaved?”

Insert dramatic sigh and eye-rolling here — I couldn’t let him know he had caught on to this insecurity.

At a new school, you had to make a good impression, both for the teachers and the students. The first secret: arrive early, talk to the teacher — no one did that, not any kid at a new school. But if you arrived before the other kids showed up, you wouldn’t look like such a loser and the teacher might favor you for however long you stay in that town. When you move to a new city every six months, you tend to adopt a short-term mindset. You need not make a lasting impression, but you could score a few easy A-minus grades.
 Once the hordes of students enter the classroom, assume the role of passive zombie. Years of firsthand research has concluded that participating in lessons did not lend good fortune to your social life.

Become an actor, a liar.

Chew your pencil, nails; crack your knuckles; doodle meaningless designs, nothing too outlandish; text underneath your desk to all the friends you pretend exist; cross, then uncross your legs, then cross them again; stare out the window; if you have glasses, clean them every few minutes with the collar of your shirt.

Don’t question this advice…I was a champion liar, a professional “new kid.” At one school in Mississippi, I wore an eye patch and spoke with a Spanish accent. Told everyone I had been training as a bullfighter all my life, until the tragic accident during my first match. Bull tore right through my eye, I told them. A miracle I even lived, actually. Before I fought, I had held such promise. They called me “the Cyclone” once, but now they only called me “the Cyclops.” I moved to America for the shame of suffering such a loss.

We arrived in Lickskillet after the fact, as we arrived in every town. Always the outsiders, arriving in the wake of tragedy, and people looked at us as if we were carpetbaggers. Whether it’s a lynching or a gay suicide or a burning cross, we came. Summer almost over, downtown brimmed with people, a mix of teens and retired couples.

To lie so spectacularly you needed rules.

To be continued soon…

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