He was born from his father’s cracked head and spilled out into his mother’s fear. His childhood was composed of dish detergent, bright yellow gloves, cleaning alcohol, and her wide paranoid eyes.
He hadn’t known his father well; he never met him. Rusty Havard’s father had died in a motorcycle crash on his way to the hospital. Rusty’s first scream perfectly mirrored his mother’s when the police gave her the news.
It always confused Rusty when he had heard what his father was like, because it was the complete opposite of his mother. His father was said to be brave, confident, never afraid to say yes, and happy.
“Your father was careless and stupid. The last thing he did was especially so.” Dealia Havard would interrupt his grandmother. This time she was viciously scrubbing the already white and shiny dishes.
“He was a good man. Accidents happen all the time, Rusty you know that don’t you,” his grandma said to him. A loud porcelain crash came from the sink, it gave Rusty a shiver from the screeching of plates. Dealia dragged his grandmother out of the kitchen. Rusty had heard them yell before, but not like this. Most of the time he occupied himself with staring at the dust floating in the sun beams from the front window, or spotting patterns on the oriental carpet, but a sob broke through to his swirling patterned world.
“You’re not my daughter-in-law anymore. Who are you?”
“I am protecting my son. I don’t want him to be like him!”
“So you want him to be like you?! Look at you! You’re so negative, so strict, and Rusty is losing his childhood-“
“Don’t you ever call him that!” Dealia screamed.
“Why not? It’s his name isn’t it?” grandma said.
Rusty plugged his ears and shut his eyes.
He hadn’t seen his grandmother since, and that was when he was eight. Now he was seventeen, slicked back, clean, and the fear from his mother had leaked its way into him.
Rusty was on the fifth minute of brushing his teeth. Like always, the mirror was showing him a respectable young man with good posture, bright blue eyes, neat dark hair, and perfect teeth filled with fizzy toothpaste. And Rusty came to the conclusion that this meant he was not normal for his age. Every morning he came to this inference. One that showed him how he should be wearing hoodies, sporting bedhead, having at least some freckles on his nose from the sun, even getting acne- every teenage boy at one point has had a dirty face, a dirty anything! And like every morning, Rusty understood how he was an odd, squeaky clean, and blank speck in a sea of colors. At least he had some friends.
School was better than home, but still not great. The history teacher, Mrs. Looney, was passing back test grades while Sid kept wadding up papers and throwing them in an attempt get a basket from the trash can next to Rusty. So far all had been misses. Rusty was trying to preoccupy himself with anything that would stop him from tapping on his desk and staring at the now pile of disgusting paper on the floor next to him.
“I was impressed with your thoughts here Russell, good job” Mrs. Looney smiled at Rusty and placed down the test. Sid leaned over him and snickered.
“Why you gotta be such a nerd Harvard” he said. Another wad of paper flew past Rusty’s shoulder. Miss.
“Why do you have to be such a lousy shot?” Rusty asked.
“Man. Shut up” Something hit the back of Rusty’s head and from the way Sid started laughing, he didn’t have to guess what it was. A flurry of warm heat gathered in his chest. His hand tightly gripped his own thigh as Sid’s laughter died down. Lately it had been easier for him to calm down and he had mastered pretending that it wasn’t there. But it was always there, hidden underneath his careful stares and rigid limbs. It was always waiting to take over and consume like a flame does to paper. Rusty breathed quietly and turned around to Sid.
“Lucky shot loser, maybe if you picture the garbage as my head you’ll actually make one” Sid gave his mischievous smile that over time Rusty had come to admire and envy.
“Boys! Tone it down, you have five more minutes until lunch” Mrs. Looney said. Both their faces dropped and turned red. Everyone in class looked at them.
“So Harvard, how’s the Danika sitchiation?” Sid said. They were walking to their usual spot by the wall where Cole already sat absorbed in his 3DS.
“I wouldn’t call it a situation. I wouldn’t even call it a thing anymore” Rusty slid in next to Cole. Cole gave them a head nod and continued playing one of those pokemon games.
“And?” asked Sid. Rusty silently began unpacking his tidy lunch pail. Sid sighed loudly.
“We’ve been houndin’ you to ask to be her lab partner again and now that vague answer is all we get? Why so secretive Harvard?” Sid asked. Then he took a huge bite of his chicken sandwich. Rusty wondered at Sid’s easy, short-tempered disposition and how he still had the ketchup stain from two days ago on his jeans. Rusty swallowed. That nagging, gagging heat bit into him as he forced himself to ignore the old dried red goop sticking on Sid and how at any moment its flakes could fall to the floor and fly on him. Despite his disgusting habits, becoming friends with Sid wasn’t hard. They all had bonded when sitting on the sidelines during freshmen gym class. Sid had told them he didn’t do gym because a guy who had major anger issues shouldn’t get in front of a basketball, while Cole just had weak bones and a doctor’s note. Rusty didn’t say anything, and somehow they knew not to ask. He liked them for that.
“Well, secretly, I’m an alien who hails from a faraway planet. I seek to eventually destroy you all but I’m biding my time eating delicious apples and crust-less Pb and J” Rusty sniffed his apple for effect.
“Dude,” Sid said. He shrugged at Rusty and continued eating. Rusty let go of a breath and was more comfortable now that the attention was off him.
“FYI guys, my parents aren’t home and my brother is throwing a party” Cole said for the first time. He never looked up from his 3DS, and then took a sip of his Hawaiian punch capri sun. Sid’s eyes widened while Rusty’s remained blank.
“Your big bro? No way, we have to go, we have to” Sid brought his fist down to the table causing it to wriggle Rusty and Cole in their seats.
“Guys?” Sid said. No answer.
“I live there, so,” Cole said. Rusty just looked down and ate his sandwich.
“Well, Harvard, if you change your mind, meet me at the park by Cole’s house at ten” Sid told him.
“I’ll only wait for five minutes after so yeah. I mean, it’s a good chance to get you acting like a normal dude,” said Sid. Rusty shrugged. Lunch continued as usual with Cole making few remarks and Sid doing most of the talking.
The last class of the day was his favorite. Psychology was Rusty’s way of examining other people and their problems without thinking about his own. Mr. Arch stood in front of the class with his bushy white moustache and a bashful expression on his face.
“Ok, students! Attention. Today I am going to start us off with a quiz. Now, we’re all mature here I expect that from all of you. This quiz’s subject is sex. You have fifteen minutes,” Mr. Arch said.
The questions were expected, “Are you a virgin?”, “Do you think it is ok if you have more than one sexual partner?”, and “Would you consider a person who has lots of sex a slut?” Rusty tugged at his collar and tried his best to finish so he could then stare at the colorful constellation diagrams on the opposite wall.
The doorknob on their front door was shiny and white; Rusty took a deep breath and turned it.
“You’re home!” His mother sat at the chair facing the entryway. She wore a wrinkle-free dress with her black hair and make-up done to perfection. She still looked thirty-five and as frazzled and on edge as a put-together looking person can be. Rusty thought to himself how he must have got that from his mother. That ability to hide what’s behind that smile, to hide the utter mess beneath the spotlessness and shine. He braced himself as Dealia stood up and stiffly squeezed his shoulders toward her.
“Did you have a good day?” She didn’t care about that. She was looking over him like a portable metal detector, scanning for ripples, grime, and signs of misuse.
“Your hair is ruffled in the back, did your head touch anything?” Dealia’s eyes bore into his like lasers. He could practically hear the sirens from his mother’s brain repeating “Emergency, emergency, this is not a drill”.
“Just some paper- it was clean. There wasn’t any ink or pencil markings on it.”
“Hmm, I still don’t like that. Russell please don’t come home in such a mess again- who knows where that paper was and what bacteria lived on it” She paused to let that sink in.
“You know why I do this Rus, you know I don’t want to lose you too” Rusty’s mother didn’t actually say that, but he could read it in her glassy stern expression. On some days Rusty would forgive Dealia’s paranoia and realize it takes the place of his dead father. It thrives because of one dirty careless mistake that broke her in half. Those days were getting fewer and far in-between.
“Go take your shower now” She pointed to the bathroom. Rusty hurried away to escape the aura of his mother, oppressive like her apple perfume and dangerous like her manicured nails.
The shower was running, but Rusty wasn’t in it. The reflection in the mirror stared back at him. His hair was messed up and the look in his eyes scared him. He took a sex quiz today, and after he had stared at the colorful star constellation pictures on the wall. He thought about how girls are called sluts and how guys are called studs. He had wondered at the yellow and pink Orion’s belt and if Orion had been a stud and that’s why they put him there. For a moment, Rusty had pictured himself dissolving into bright light and star dust and floating away from the muck and clutter of earth. Maybe he could be safe and important up in the vacuum of space. Maybe all that dumb having sex stuff wouldn’t matter to him anymore. Suddenly that thought got sucked away by a stronger image of his mother’s vacuum. The sound scrapped against his ears and Rusty ruffled his hair more as an act of defiance. He smirked at himself and the bedhead he created. Even though it still bothered him, it felt even better to defy his mother. The adrenaline was bigger and more noticeable than the thing he always has to hide, like a big open skyscraper to a tiny closed-up motorhome. As the vacuum intensified so did Rusty’s resolve. He was going to that party tonight.
Rusty laid on his crisply-made bed while his digital clock blared eight-thirty. His mom was always awake. She was in the kitchen still cleaning plates. They had a dishwasher they never used; Dealia didn’t trust it. He’d have to climb out the back window near the end of the hallway because his was barred up. Then he’d run across their lawn and book-it to the park. It was a mile or so away but Rusty never ran so it would be a challenge. This plan had gone through his head over and over since seven. Now, he had thirty minutes to kill, and something made him grab the comics from inside one of his winter coats. His grandmother had given them to him in secret when he was little. Soon, he had figured out which places to hide them as his mom alternated her cleaning schedules. It was one of the most precious items he owned, the other one being his father’s lucky rabbit foot, but grandma always held onto it for him. That had gone, along with all her comforting smiles and reassuring hugs, when he was eight. Rusty read some Batman, some X-Men, and finished with the Avengers. The clock now said nine-thirty.
Rusty slid along the hallway as silently as he could. The sounds of water, clanking porcelain, and his mother’s incessant humming signaled that he was good to go. The window glided easily and brought on the one time Rusty thanked his mother for constantly being on top of everything. No one else would make sure a window opened so smoothly. The lawn was already cool and shiny. Rusty broke into a run and didn’t look back.
Rusty heaved next to the big tree by the edge of the park. The run had been tough, but he knew he was early. Sid arrived ten minutes later. He came like a sloppy shadow and violently slapped Rusty on the back.
“You made it. Maybe you aren’t as much of a total nerd as I thought,” Sid said.
“Yeah, yeah, harassment, harassment. Let’s just go,” Rusty started walking toward Cole’s house.
“O-kay then” he said. As they walked Sid went on about how popular Cole’s brother is and how everyone should be there. Rusty smiled and nodded in response but he felt the motorhome growing and fighting the skyscraper for space.
Cole’s house was lit up from the inside. Purples, reds, greens, blues, and oranges alternated and pulsed with the rhythm and deep rumbling of the bass. Sid’s open face took on each color and it made him look like a happy Christmas tree light. Rusty wondered if that’s what he looked like too. Cole’s brother opened the door for them and pointed to the crowded living room. Sid was right, everyone was here. Rusty even saw Danika with her cute red hair and sequined top in a corner, drinking and laughing. Sid shoved Rusty to point out the DJ stand. They didn’t have to look for Cole anymore. He looked like some sort of small framed DJ master, complete with glow sticks and weird sunglasses.
“Nice Man! Go Cole!” Sid shouted over the deep beats and roar of sound. Cole looked up, tilted his sunglasses down, and nodded at them. Rusty chuckled.
“Ok dude I’m gonna go dance, and this is not a front for you to be left alone and go over to talk to Danika over there, nope” Sid slide away before Rusty could say anything. He gripped onto his own arm as he walked over to the drinks table. Danika was alone now and staring out into the crowd with a bemused expression. Rusty mechanically poured some clear alcohol called Smirnoff into his cup. Dankia was looking at him now.
“Someone’s ambitious” she remarked. Rusty gave her a weak smile and chugged some of it down. He felt fire lick the inside of his throat and fight its way down. It hurt and caused him to sputter some out.
“Yeah, that’s going to happen” she laughed at him. Rusty looked into his cup, cursing himself for being a fool, but still happy she hadn’t walked away.
“You’re Russell, right?” she asked.
“Actually, can you call me Rusty? I go by that,” he said.
“Sure. Yeah, I know you from Chem. Thanks for all the help on our last project by the way.”
“No problem.” He smiled. Danika’s eyes were lit up green as she went on her tippy toes to inspect Rusty’s head.
“I like your hair like that” she said. Rusty felt his face get hot as he looked at her now glowing purple eyes.
“Well, Rusty. You probably need a chaser to down that drink without dying” Danika said. She handed him a lime. Then, she demonstrated by drinking some from his cup and biting into it. Rusty followed suit and he learned that limes solve every problem.
“That’s better,” Danika giggled. Rusty grinned at her and felt a wave of heat and colors surround him, the sweat and sound wiping away the clean blandness of him.
“Do you want to go somewhere to talk?” he asked her. Liquid courage actually worked.
“Yes” she said. They didn’t talk. They had sat down in a dim back room. Rusty started to play with her red hair in his fingertips- it was soft and kind of damp. He thought it almost looked black as she scooted closer to him. Then she kissed him. Their lips were wet as they touched and moved. The colors further invaded Rusty’s mind. A tingling feeling spread out to his toes and to the back of his neck. “Rus, I love you, please be safe,” his mother told him. The fear bubbled in him and rose and rose. Everything is so dirty, Rusty thought. Danika’s breath suddenly became overpowering and smelt of acid and salt. Her sticky black hair grabbed at his face. The fear fizzed and quickened, until it came out through his mouth. Danika screamed as his fear spilled out onto her legs. Rusty got up and ran to the main living room. Red, blue, green, purple, and then only bright yellow beamed at his eyes. He ran through bodies, disgusting, throbbing, and beating meshes of fluids and bacteria. Once out of the house, his legs knew the way. He gasped and imploded. This was how a star really felt, constantly exploding, hot, and always hurting.
Rusty woke up to marble right in front of his face. He was lying on wet grass. The stone slab created a shadow that shielded him from the bright sun. There was puke on his leg. Rusty’s eyes shut tight and his hands balled into fists as he breathed himself out of the panic. After it faded, he stared at the pattern on the marble gravestone. “Rusty Havard, a husband, father, and son”. His name was not Russell, he thought, it’s Rusty like his father.
“Rusty?” an old woman’s voice said. He turned around to see his grandmother holding a bouquet of white flowers. He got up and ran to her. She dropped the flowers as she held onto him tightly. Rusty’s eyes spilled water as his grandmother pressed the rabbit’s foot into his hand.