The strangeness began shortly after his eighteenth birthday. A time when, he'd wanted to think, his life might have begun to be more fully his own.
The new, veiled way in which people were looking at him. Or looking away from him.
Got to be imagining it. Weird!
Nothing about him had outwardly changed, he was sure. He'd been growing steadily since the age of twelve, and he was now five feet ten, weighed approximately 135, had to be normal, average for his age. Sometimes he cut himself shaving out of carelessness, but that didn't seem to be what anyone was looking at, or not looking at. He wore his usual clothes: baggy khakis, longsleeved black T-shirt, size 11 running shoes. In cold weather he wore his purple school jacket, emblazoned with the bronze letters MT. OLIVE VARSITY TRACK, and Army-surplus combat boots. Much of the time he wore his Walkman, and his mind was totally elsewhere. When he removed the headphones and the heavy, throbbing music faded, the world, which was a world of adults, a world designed and controlled by adults, rolled in over him like an avalanche.
It wasn't Danny's friends and classmates who behaved strangely with him, just adults. And not all adults, only a few. His foster parents, the Stampfels—Ed and Em, they wanted to be called. Two or three of his teachers at Mt. Olive High. The track-team coach, Hal Diedrich. The principal, Mr. Bernard, and the faculty adviser to the student newspaper, Mr. Fackler. And Mrs. Jameson, the guidance counselor.
He'd thought he knew Mrs. Jameson. Thought she knew him.
Two years before, when Danny Neuworth was a sophomore, a new transfer to Mt. Olive High, he'd had a difficult time adjusting; he'd been lonely yet not very sociable, poorly motivated in his studies yet anxious about grades, and so he'd been referred to Mrs. Jameson. She had let him talk without interrupting him, had asked him questions that showed she was sympathetic, genuinely interested in him, and so he'd come to trust her. She'd given him good advice he'd tried to follow. But now, so strangely, in November of his senior year, when Danny was considering where to apply to college, eager for advice and encouragement, Mrs. Jameson answered his questions in a distracted manner, smiling faintly in his direction without seeming to see him. Open before her on her desk was a manila file inscribed, in stark black ink, Neuworth, Daniel S. '05. "confidential."
When he first entered Mrs. Jameson's office, she was frowning at a document in the file. She glanced up at him then with a look—veiled, startled. "Oh, Daniel. Come in." Their conversation was stiff, awkward. If he didn't know better, Danny would have thought the guidance counselor didn't know him at all. Finally he asked if there was something in his file: "I guess you couldn't tell me, huh?"
Mrs. Jameson said quickly, "There's nothing wrong, Daniel. Of course. What could be wrong?" A deep flush rose into her face. Her voice was oddly flat, toneless.
Danny had friends who'd conferred with the guidance counselor, students whose grades were no better than his, and they'd come away with lists of colleges to apply to, even catalogues and brochures. But Mrs. Jameson didn't seem to have any ideas for him. He said he'd like to study mechanical engineering, maybe. His foster father, Ed Stampfel, had thought that might work for him. Yes, that might work for him, Mrs. Jameson said vaguely. "If you have the math. Engineering requires math, you know." Repeatedly Mrs. Jameson blew her nose in a tissue, apologizing for "sinus allergies." Out of a crammed bookshelf she pulled dogeared catalogues for regional New Jersey colleges—Warren County, Cape May, Hunterdon Community, Rutgers-Camden. "Maybe one of these. Let's see."
Strange—Mrs. Jameson wasn't meeting his eye. Wasn't calling him Danny, as she had in the past.
Adults! You couldn't figure them.
Since kindergarten, Danny's teachers had encouraged him, presumably knowing of his foster-home background. Pursue your goals, follow your dream, everyone in America is special, you have only to be you. Now, when he needed encouragement and advice, Mrs. Jameson couldn't seem to think of anything to tell him. Her sleek, slender laptop was open on her desk, and in the lenses of her glasses he saw a faint reflection of mysterious darting movements on the screen, like secret thoughts.
Something in my file. That must be it.
Yet what could it be? He'd never gotten into trouble at school, or anywhere else. He'd been a sulky kid for a while in high school, but came out of it gradually and became an earnest, diligent, if not very imaginative, student. In easy subjects like communication arts, social studies, health and fitness, he'd earned A-minuses, but mostly his grades hovered at B-/C+ no matter how hard he worked. He had a small circle of friends, mostly guys like himself. This year he'd finally made the varsity track team, by driving himself mercilessly and earning the respect of Coach Diedrich for his effort if not for his actual accomplishments ("Not every guy can be a star, Danny. You're a team player"). His only distinction was that since the second semester of his sophomore year Neuworth, Daniel had been listed on the Mt. Olive Good Citizenship Roster, initiated by the school district to boost morale by "honoring" those students who attended classes regularly, did their schoolwork, and caused no trouble. But the honor had become a joke, because so many names were listed.
Belatedly, in the way of a coach giving a pep talk to a paraplegic athlete, Mrs. Jameson had begun to extol the virtues of small colleges, technical schools, to say how much more suitable they were for some students than universities, let alone the "prestigious" Ivy League universities, which in her opinion were "undemocratic and overrated." Mrs. Jameson was speaking now with a strange vehemence, as if someone had dared to argue with her, an invisible presence in her office toward whom she felt animosity. Danny listened uneasily. He saw a thin blade of sunshine ease onto the framed diplomas on the wall behind Mrs. Jameson's desk. Her master's degree was in education and psychology from Rutgers-Newark.
Rutgers-Newark! No wonder Mrs. Jameson was so contemptuous of "prestigious" schools.
When Mrs. Jameson fell silent, blowing her nose, Danny reverted to the subject of his file. "I guess there must be something bad in it, right?" Mrs. Jameson said quickly, with a frown, "No, not at all, Danny. Everything is fine."
"Not so great, not outstanding, but 'fine.'" Danny smiled to show that he understood. Dabbing at her eyes with a tissue, Mrs. Jameson said, like a mother gently rebuking a child, "Not everyone can be outstanding, Danny. In our American republic everyone is created 'equal,' but only politically—as citizens. Not in other respects. At your age, you must know that."
Danny nodded yes, he knew. How could he not know!
"Not many of us at Mt. Olive are 'outstanding,' I can assure you. Or we wouldn't be here, you see." This was meant to be lightly playful, provocative. But something in Mrs. Jameson's face seemed to crack. Clumsily she rose from behind her desk, a fleshy middleaged woman with a flushed face, saying, "I think I have, in the outer office, a brochure for—I'm not sure. Excuse me."