Lex, however, stayed in the lunch room, seated in his usual spot, surrounded by his friends. The lunch tables were long rectangles with seats for 12 students on each side. All 23 of the other students at Lex’s table were his friends, including his girlfriend, Korie, who sat on his immediate left. Not only that, but all 48 students at the two nearest lunch tables were also Lex’s friends. And that wasn’t the full extent of Lex’s friends. He had friends scattered all through the lunch room, or people with whom he had a friendly relationship, at least. Lex was easy to like and hard to dislike.
He was in the middle of a conversation about an upcoming party and the things that could be done to prevent this party from turning out like the last party when Roman walked up and said, “Hey, Lex.”
Lex stopped in the middle of a point he was making about how it made sense that Trevor’s neighbor had called the cops because what else was she supposed to do when people were on her roof, and turned on his seat to look up at Roman. “Hey, Roman.” He didn’t know Roman’s last name or very much else about him either, except that he was in a band and had a decently well-realized beard for an 18-year-old and took a lot of art classes. Korie took a lot of art classes too and she’d told Lex that Roman was “funny but kind of mean.” Lex hadn’t been interested enough to ask for examples.
Roman had his thumbs hooked inside the straps of his gray backpack at chest level. He wore a blue stocking cap from under which sprouted hay-like hair. He was the kind of person who wore glasses in one’s recollection of him but not in real life. “So,” he said to Lex. “You really like rap, huh?”
No one else at the table was paying attention to Roman except for Korie. Lex felt her rest her hand on his back, for some reason. Maybe she was just being affectionate. “Yeah, I like rap,” said Lex. “I like all kinds of music.”
“But you really like rap,” said Roman.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because,” said Roman. “I mean, you must. The way you roll into the lot every morning with your system blasting and roll out of the lot every afternoon with your system blasting. And it’s always rap. I mean, I never hear you bumping any classical music, for example.”
Lex was confused. “You want me to turn it down?”
Roman laughed. “No, no, I like rap music too. That’s my point. I mean, I can’t afford a sound system like the one you bought, but I like rap.”
“Is that why you came over here?” asked Korie. “To tell Lex you like rap?” Lex, having turned to his right to talk to Roman, had his back to Korie, but he could tell by the tone of her voice that she was irritated.
“No, actually,” said Roman, glancing over Lex’s shoulder at Korie before again addressing Lex. “I just had an idea I wanted to run by you, Lex. The senior talent show is coming up and I thought that since I like rap and since you like rap so much that you listen to it as loud as you possibly can so everyone can hear you listening to it every day on the sound system you bought for yourself, then we should do something together.”
“I didn’t buy the sound system for myself,” said Lex. He felt Korie’s hand on his back curl into a fist but he didn’t know why. “My parents got it for me for me and Korie’s 6-month dating anniversary.”
Roman grinned. “Well, however you got it, it’s a sweet system, we all know that. And despite your love of all genres of music, you’ve chosen to use that sweet system exclusively for rap, and I think that means something. I think that means-”
“Go away,” said Korie. “He’s not doing anything with you for the talent show.”
Lex turned to look at Korie with a puzzled expression. He didn’t get why she was being like this. She gave him a look that she clearly intended to mean something. Lex didn’t get that either. He turned back to Roman. “Something for the talent show like what?”
“We,” said Roman, “should battle.”
“Battle who?” asked Lex. “How?”
“Each other,” said Roman. “With rap.”
Korie’s bedroom was the entire renovated attic of her parents’ house. Lex always hit his head on the slanted ceiling. He was lying on his back on Korie’s bed while she sat at her desk in front of her computer. Korie had been trying to write an artist’s statement for her display in the upcoming art show, but it hadn’t taken long for the argument to start up again.
“I’m not saying you’re going to be bad at it,” said Korie. “I’m just telling you that Roman wouldn’t have gone out of his way to suggest it to you if he just wanted to put on a good show.”
“Why not?” asked Lex.
“Because! He would’ve just gotten one of his friends to do it with him!”
“Maybe his friends are bad rappers,” said Lex.
“They probably are,” said Korie. “But he has no way of knowing if you’ll be any good. If he’s hoping to put on a good show, why would he just roll the dice with you?” She felt like she was just saying the same things over and over with slightly different phrasing.
Lex sighed. “Korie, I know you’re smarter than me, but it bothers me when you assume the worst like this.”
“I’m trying to watch out for you. I’ve been sitting here trying to write this artist’s statement for an hour and I haven’t written one word because I’m worried about what’s going to happen at this rap battle. I have no idea why you agreed to do it.”
“It sounded like fun,” said Lex. “And I have trouble saying ‘no.’ You know that. I don’t understand what you think could happen that would be so bad. I’m not afraid to get up in front of people. I get along with everyone.”
“I know that’s what you think,” said Korie, twisting on her chair to look at Lex. “I know that’s been your experience. But if he makes you look ridiculous, they will laugh at you, Lex, I’m serious.”
Lex propped himself up on his elbows so he could look at Korie. “Make me look ridiculous? What? How?”
“It’s adorable that you can’t even fathom this,” said Korie, “but I’m serious. You didn’t catch that Roman was mocking you about your parents buying your sound system for you at all, did you?”
“What?” said Lex. “He was mocking me? I don’t think so.”
“He was,” said Korie. “I promise you, he was.”
“I don’t think so,” said Lex. “How could he mock me for my parents getting me a sound system? That’s a good thing.” He tossed Korie’s gray teddy bear up almost to the ceiling and then caught it. Korie had never been able to make Lex understand that the bear’s name was “Conrad,” not “Comrade.”
“I’ve had classes with him,” said Korie. “Roman used to make fun of Joe Charold in Advanced Pottery all the time. And everyone laughed. I laughed.”
“Joe Charold?” Lex looked baffled. He tossed Conrad at the ceiling again. “How could someone make fun of Joe Charold? He’s cool, his girlfriend is hot, his parents are successful.”
Korie gave up. For now. She could maybe make Lex understand by telling him Roman’s mockery was motivated by envy, but she didn’t think that was true. Roman didn’t want what Lex and Joe Charold had. It all made a sort of sense to her, but she couldn’t articulate it, and certainly not in any way that Lex would accept. She turned back to the blank document on her computer monitor where she was supposed to be writing her artist’s statement. She wrote three words: My art sucks. Then she closed the document without saving it, stood up, and told Lex she wanted nachos.
Lex was at his locker talking to some guys, one of which happened to be Joe Charold, when Roman walked up. “Hey, Lex, I just talked to Mr. Vickrah and he says we’re good to go for the talent show. We don’t have to audition.”
“Oh,” said Lex. “Really? That’s cool.” He glanced from Roman to Joe but neither guy seemed at all uncomfortable in the other’s presence. Joe probably didn’t care that Roman had made fun of him in a pottery class. Nor should he, obviously.
“Yeah,” said Roman. “I’ve had a lot of art classes so me and Vickrah are pretty close. I explained to him how we’re gonna be freestyling so whatever we did in the audition wouldn’t be what we do on stage anyway and he said that was cool. Just no cussing or racial stuff or sexual content.”
“Well, yeah,” said Lex. “Of course.”
“So here’s what I’m thinking,” said Roman. “We’ll have three rounds, different beats for each round, we each get one 30-second verse per round. And pre-written punchlines are fine, that’ll make for a better show. But, obviously, if you’re coming off the top about stuff I’ve said in previous rounds, then that’s the best.”
“That all sounds good,” said Lex, barely following.
“At first I thought maybe we should get together and do a practice session,” said Roman. “But then I thought, no, it’ll be better if we’re battling for the first time, that way we don’t accidentally use some of our best stuff in practice and then have the impact blunted in person, right?”
“Yeah, totally,” said Lex. He was realizing he really didn’t know much about rap battles at all. He wondered if Korie knew what any of this stuff meant. Well, whatever, how complicated could it be? He’d just wing it, like he usually did with everything. It’d work out. When had winging it ever not worked out for him? Never, that he could remember. Joe and the other guys, not interested in the logistics of a talent show rap battle, had moved away from Roman and Lex.
Roman was still talking. “You can be as personal as you want with your raps, that’s what makes it fun. The harsher, the better.”
“Like what?” asked Lex. “I don’t really know anything bad about you.”
“You know,” said Roman. “Like, my beard, the way I dress, my art projects, whatever. It’s all fair game.”
Lex nodded. He had no idea what was going on.
“All right,” said Roman. “Well, get at me with any beats you think we should use. I’ve got a couple that I’ll send to you. I’ll see you around.” He turned and walked away down the hall.
And almost immediately, whatever slight prickles of anxiety Lex had begun to feel drifted away, Joe and the other guys moved back toward Lex, and he seamlessly rejoined the conversation.
“He’s going to say horrible things about you,” said Korie. “He knows you aren’t wired to fight back like that. He’s taking advantage of you, Lex.” Korie and Lex were going to the theater to watch a movie. They hadn’t picked which movie yet. They usually decided while they were standing in line. Well, Korie usually decided. Lex never read reviews and he didn’t pay attention to trailers on TV. Korie drove while Lex rode in the passenger’s seat with his eyes closed. Korie didn’t know why he closed his eyes so much when he rode in a car. He wasn’t sleepy and he wasn’t scared and he didn’t get motion-sickness. His explanation was that he “just liked to.” Korie was driving because she wanted to use this opportunity to discuss the rap battle with Lex and she didn’t trust him to discuss and drive at the same time.
“But there’s nothing horrible to say about me,” said Lex. “Like, what would he say?”
“I don’t know,” said Korie. “I don’t know what he’s going to say! That’s the thing, he knows how to make just good, normal stuff sound bad. That’s, like, his awful talent.”
Lex opened his eyes for a second, probably to see how close they were to the theater, then closed them again. “I think rap battles are mostly just like, ‘Oh, I’m a better rapper than you, your style sucks,’” said Lex.
“No,” said Korie. “He told you that it’s gonna be personal and harsh. He told you that straight up.”
“Eh, we’ll see,” said Lex. “I guess he thinks that’s how it’s gonna be, but I can’t really think of anything harsh to say about him and I don’t think he’ll be able to think of anything harsh to say about me either.”
Korie eased the car to a stop at a red light. She looked over at Lex. His face was uncreased by trauma or grief or stress or struggle. And that wasn’t just a masking trick of the red light. He really hadn’t experienced any of those things to any significant degree in his 18 years. His life had been far too easy to prepare him for the reality of his impending rap battle with Roman. It would be up to Korie to save him. She was still watching Lex’s face when the color of the light in which it was bathed changed from red to green. And in the green light, his face looked, if possible, even less prepared for life’s troubles. As Korie accelerated her car through the intersection, she wondered what Lex’s face would look like after the talent show rap battle if she didn’t intervene somehow. The thought made her unbearably sad. She could not allow him to feel the cruelty of the world for the first time in front of an auditorium full of rowdy seniors. She couldn’t stand the thought of seeing them see him like that.
“Lex,” said Korie, pulling her car into a parking space in the theater’s massive lot. “We’re here.”
Lex opened his eyes. “That felt like good driving,” he said. “Good job.”
A few days later, Lex sat on the front porch of his parents’ house playing a simple puzzle game on his phone, passively enjoying the warm spring evening. He had beaten the game several times before. He already knew how to solve all of the puzzles. He looked up from his phone as Korie pulled her car into the driveway and got out, approaching him with a notebook in her hand.
“What do you have there?” he asked as Korie sat down next to him on the porch swing, causing it to sway back and forth a little until Lex planted his feet more firmly to steady it.
“I knew you wouldn’t do anything,” said Korie. “I knew you wouldn’t be worried enough to put forth the effort.”
Lex could tell she was easing him into something she knew he wouldn’t like. He recognized the tone. But sometimes it wasn’t that bad. Sometimes Korie thought he’d be more upset by stuff than he actually was. Maybe this would be one of those times.
“Roman is counting on you being unprepared,” said Korie. “I’m sure of it. He’s probably pre-writing all of his verses to be as harsh as possible. His raps are going to be meticulously crafted and personal and mean. You can’t just go up there…and…I don’t even know what you’re going to do, Lex, but it’s not going to be enough.”
“So what’s in the notebook?” asked Lex.
“I talked to Hayley Ceurtner,” said Korie. “Roman’s ex-girlfriend. She gave me some inside information. Some stuff about his family. And she says he’s a terrible kisser and he’s really cheap. She gave me some specific examples. And I added that to some stuff I picked up from Advanced Pottery, some stuff about his art.”
“You wrote raps?” asked Lex. “For me to use?”
“No,” said Korie. “I just have the material. We’ll work on the raps together. That way you’ll be prepared when he attacks you with his raps.”
“Well, thanks for going to all that trouble,” said Lex. “But I don’t wanna do all that. I’m just going to freestyle it. Like, really freestyle, I think. Just, whatever comes out. I’m not really worried.”
“So this was a total waste of my time,” said Korie. “You’re not gonna use any of it.”
“I’m not gonna need to, though,” said Lex. “There’s no way he has anything that bad about me. I’m a great kisser.” He grinned.
“I’m just nervous,” said Korie, dropping the notebook on the porch and folding her legs up under her on the swing. “I just want you to have a plan in place in case things go differently than you’re expecting.”
“Stuff pretty much always goes how I expect it to,” said Lex.
“What about at the theater a couple of months ago when we saw Prescient Waves?” asked Korie. “You didn’t expect that ending. That blew your mind. Remember?”
“Huh,” said Lex. “No. I don’t remember that at all.”
Korie found Roman sitting by himself at a table in the back corner of the school library, loose sheets of notes spread out in front of him. He was studying for a Physics exam.
“Can we talk?” asked Korie.
“Sure,” said Roman, looking up at her. “But we’ll have to be quiet. This is a library.”
Korie didn’t smile as she sat down in a chair next to Roman and turned to face him. “So what’s your big plan?” she asked, her voice cold.
“We’re talking about the rap battle,” said Roman. “Right?”
“Why Lex?” asked Korie. “I understand that he’s popular and his parents are rich, I get all that, but there are guys who are so much more obnoxious and arrogant that you could have decided to publicly embarrass. Is this some kind of long-standing grudge? Did he do something to you in 3rd grade and you’ve been holding onto this hate for years? Are you in love with me? I’m trying to make sense of this.”
“I know he likes rap,” said Roman, his face unreadable. “I always hear him playing it in his car. And he’s not shy about getting up in front of people. So I figured he’d be willing to do it with me.”
“Why not just get one of your friends to do it?”
Roman laughed at a library-appropriate volume. “Because more people will be interested if Lex is doing it. He’s a big name. He’s the star power.”
“Please just do it like you say you’re gonna do it,” said Korie. “Please. I know you think his social status means he’s automatically a fair target for you, but he’s really nice. He really is. He never picks on anyone. He likes everyone and he thinks everyone likes him.”
“Do you realize how embarrassing it would be for Lex if I put this into one of my raps?” asked Roman. “His girlfriend coming to me before the battle to ask me to take it easy on him because she wants him to keep thinking that everyone likes him forever?”
“That sounds like a great rap,” said Korie, standing up. “Great ‘flow.’ Is that what it’s called? Very smooth. I hope you fail your exam.”
“I won’t,” said Roman, grinning. “I’m cheating.”
Korie wished she could tell on him and get him in trouble. But there was a chance he was lying, and if she told on him and he wasn’t cheating, she’d just end up looking stupid and petty. She couldn’t risk it.
Korie and Lex picked up Joe Charold and his girlfriend Tara on the way to the senior talent show. Joe had wrecked his car the previous week and Tara didn’t have a driver’s license. Joe’s mom had offered to drop them off at the senior talent show and pick them up when it was over, but that was not a workable solution for Joe, so he’d asked Lex if they could catch a ride with him and Korie. Lex, of course, had agreed.
Lex drove this time. Korie rode shotgun. Joe and Tara were in the back seat, riding in silence as Korie made her last-ditch attempt to get Lex to drop out of the rap battle with Roman. Lex had known this was coming and had warned Joe ahead of time that the car ride would probably be tense. Joe had assured him that it would still be preferable to riding with his mom who would certainly insist on lecturing Joe about the many faults of the current generation of teenage girls in a way that everyone knew was meant to hurt Tara.
What Lex had not anticipated, however, was Korie trying to get Joe and Tara on her side. Korie twisted around so that she could see Joe in the back seat and said, “You know what Roman’s like, Joe. Tell Lex I’m right.”
Lex glanced up at the rearview mirror and saw Joe’s confused face. “I know what Roman’s like? What do you mean? I hardly know him.”
“Right,” said Korie. “Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. You hardly know him and he still said all that stuff about you. Just to get laughs. That’s what he’s going to do to Lex, don’t you think?”
Lex was usually the less observant one between him and Korie, but he knew Joe well enough to sense that Korie had blundered into a minefield. “Roman said all what stuff?” asked Joe. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Roman’s been talking about me? To get laughs? What do you mean? Like, making fun of me?”
Lex assumed Korie would backpedal now, but she didn’t. He looked over at her and she looked back at him and he could see her adjusting her strategy on the fly. She turned back to Joe. The way she had to sit to make eye contact with Joe in the back seat looked uncomfortable to Lex. It bothered him. “Yeah, Joe, you never heard about this? I just assumed it had gotten back to you. Roman never tried to hide it at all, he’d say stuff about you all the time in Advanced Pottery.”
“Like what?” asked Joe. Lex could see Joe leaning forward in his peripheral vision.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Lex. “Who cares?”
“I care,” said Joe. “Korie says people laughed.”
“I don’t really remember many specifics,” said Korie. “But I do remember he said you look like a cross between Whirlen on Copterflighter and the older sister on Humble Begins.”
It took Lex a few moments to realize that the shrill, staccato noise filling the car was Tara’s hysterical laughter. Glancing again in the rearview mirror, Lex saw that Joe’s face was twisted with pained outrage. Lex glanced over at Korie and she was looking at him with an expression that he interpreted as, “This is exactly what’s going to happen to you except on a larger scale.”
Lex went back to driving and only driving. He ignored everything else, including Tara’s continued laughter, which was now taking on a tinge of shriekiness. Lex was good at ignoring things. It was one of the skills to which he attributed much of his likability.
As the procession of classmates singing nondescript songs accompanied by their own hesitantly strummed guitars and classmates singing semi-audibly along with the album versions of currentish hits dragged on, Korie became more and more anxious. She was seated in the midst of a raucous audience of a few hundred students, mostly seniors. Tara was on her right and beyond Tara was Joe, still fuming. Korie did not think it was unreasonable to conclude, at this point, that she had ruined Joe’s night.
As soon as Korie, Lex, Joe, and Tara had entered the school as a group, Roman had swooped in and told Lex that they had to wait backstage until it was their turn to perform. Korie had asked Lex once more not to go through with it, Roman had rolled his eyes, and Joe, refusing to look at Roman, had clapped one hand on Lex’s shoulder and said, “Destroy him. Humiliate him.” So Korie’s plan to use Joe’s embarrassment as a cautionary tale had completely backfired. Not that Lex had seemed inspired by Joe’s directive. She almost wished he would have been. It was too late for him to do a good job of fighting back against Roman, but some sign of aggression would have been mildly encouraging. Instead, he shrugged Joe’s hand off of his shoulder and sauntered down the hall after Roman.
And of course, there was no program stating the order of the night’s acts. Korie had had Mr. Vickrah for several different art classes and she knew his attitude toward the extracurricular events he was coerced into organizing: apathetic. She guessed he was probably standing in the wings and just sending people with guitars and/or microphones out on stage at random. And the longer the senior talent show went without Roman and Lex walking out onto the stage, the more anxiety Korie felt. She fidgeted in her seat and couldn’t look at the stage no matter who was on it. When the crowd cheered and applauded wildly for every act, caught up in the jubilant spirit of having very little mandatory schooling remaining, Korie took no solace in their supportive attitude. To her, it only meant that the crowd was engaged and ready to react how they were supposed to react. Once the rap battle started, Korie knew who would be telling the crowd how to react, and it wasn’t going to be Lex. He was just going to be standing there looking foolish, sheepish, clueless, hurt…
“Excuse me,” said Korie to the girl seated on her left side. Korie stood up in the middle of a bad song being played and sung badly. “Excuse me.” She pushed her way down the row toward the aisle. When she reached the aisle, Korie almost broke into a run toward the doors at the back of the auditorium, but she restrained herself to a brisk walk. As she exited the auditorium, the door swung closed behind her, muffling the applause, the cheering. Korie didn’t have time to pause and consider her next move. Roman and Lex could be walking out on stage at that very moment. She had to act. She made a bee line for the nearest fire alarm and pulled it. Nothing happened. Korie stared at the fire alarm in astonishment, her fingers still resting on the red handle emblazoned with the words “pull down” in bold, white letters. That was exactly what she had done. She pushed the handle back up, then pulled it down again. Nothing. She ran around the corner into the vacant lunch room and spotted a fire alarm on the far wall. Weaving between the tables, Korie made her way to this second targeted fire alarm, pulled the handle, and again nothing happened.
From the auditorium, Korie heard a deep, thumping beat, cheering, and then someone shouting into a microphone: “Raaaaap baaaaattllllle!”
It was starting. The rap battle was starting. The total demise of Korie’s sweet boyfriend’s transcendentally naïve view of the world was starting. And she was all out of options. Except for one. She could go into the auditorium and she could shout “fire!” Then there would certainly be no rap battle.
Roman’s plan was perfect and simple, in that order. His friend Curtis was running the sound booth for the senior talent show. So Roman, having graciously volunteered to take the less desirable slot, would go first, rapping a bunch of pre-written, memorized lines that he had crafted to sound spontaneous over one of the agreed-upon beats. None of the lines were that special, nothing too pointed or mean. This was just part of the set-up.
Roman had given Curtis a few options of audio to play instead of beats when it was Lex’s turn to rap. If Lex tried to be a good sport and forge ahead, Curtis might be able to play all of the options, but Roman suspected that Lex would give up before they got that far. Even If he tried to rap over the arrhythmic belching and the arrhythmic shrieking, he’d never make it through the looped clip of monks humming tunelessly sped up to eight times its normal speed. Curtis also had the green light to go with the theme song to the long-running, corny kids’ show Funfriend Fancyface if the moment seemed right. Roman had encouraged Curtis to save that one for last, if possible, since the nostalgia-factor would guarantee a big laugh, but he also wanted to leave the door open for Curtis to drop it at a more perfect moment. Roman didn’t want to be a dictator about his plan. Curtis was more likely to be an enthusiastic accomplice if he felt like he had some room to be expressive within the prank.
As Roman and Lex waited in the wings for their turn on stage, they didn’t speak to each other. Roman couldn’t stop tapping his foot and drumming his fingers on his own thighs. He hoped that Lex interpreted all his fidgeting as nervousness for the performance and not as what Roman was telling himself it really was, which was the adrenaline of a master schemer on the verge of snaring his prey. But Lex didn’t seem to notice Roman at all, really. He was just leaning against the wall and looking down at his phone. Roman managed to lean over and catch a glimpse of what Lex was doing and it appeared is if he was slowly scrolling through pictures of speakers.
It wasn’t that Roman hated Lex, or even disliked him, really. He just seemed like a perfect target. He just had that aura of unfounded confidence that Roman found infuriating. It wasn’t that Lex acted entitled, he just acted like he assumed everything would work out for him whether he was entitled to it or not. And so far, nothing in his life had happened to contradict that assumption. So tonight, in a small-yet-hilarious way, something would not work out for Lex. Roman wasn’t trying to teach anyone any lessons, he wasn’t trying to make any grand statements, he just wanted Lex to look foolish. He wanted it for himself. He needed reassurance that everyone must struggle at some point in their lives, even if he had to be the one to manufacture that struggle.
And then Mr. Vickrah, referring to a handwritten list of acts that he’d written on a scrap of cardboard, pointed at Roman and nodded. It was time for the rap battle. He and Lex picked up their wireless microphones, switched them on, and strode out onto the empty stage. Curtis dropped the beat right on cue and Roman, one hand raised over his head, the other holding the microphone to his lips, looked out over the upturned faces of his classmates. They were smiling, cheering. They were happy to be teenagers, happy to be seniors, happy to be nearly done with high school, happy to be gathered together and having fun, happy to be distracted from their academic and financial and familial and romantic and emotional and spiritual and occupational and legal problems that constantly threatened to suck the pleasure out of any given moment unless they were kept at bay, a task that could only be accomplished through great effort and vigilance, and even that didn’t always work.
Roman stepped to the edge of the stage. Lex was somewhere behind him. Roman pressed the microphone right up against his lips, his eyes gleaming with the light of imminent mischief. He shouted. “Raaaaap baaaaattllllle!”
The crowd’s response was intense, unruly, and unmistakably favorable.
“All right!” shouted Roman. “All right, all right, all right! Here’s what we’re gonna do: we’re gonna go three rounds, each of us, me and Lex, gets one 30-second verse per round-”
And that’s when Joe Charold jumped up on the stage, slapped the microphone out of Roman’s hand, grabbed him by the front of his shirt, swept his legs out from under him, and slammed him down on the stage flat on his back. Roman hadn’t even seen Joe coming. It took Roman a few dizzy moments to realize that Joe was speaking to him.
“Korie told me what you said.” Joe’s voice was low and oozing with hatred. “She told me how you liked to make everyone laugh and laugh about me in your pottery class. I never did anything to you. I never even talked to you. And now, look what’s happening. Everyone who thought you were so funny gets to see what happens.”
The beat had stopped. Roman could hear the audience murmuring under the ringing of his own ears. Why was no one intervening? Where was Mr. Vickrah? And then Lex appeared, standing behind Joe, placing one hand on his shoulder. Lex’s face looked like it was floating miles above Roman, impossibly unconcerned by this situation or any.
“Joe,” said Lex. “Just ignore it.”
“He thinks he can just say whatever,” said Joe. “About anyone.”
“Just let him up,” said Lex. “He’s had a hard life.”
“I haven’t had a ‘hard life,’” said Roman, his windpipe still constricted by Joe’s hand twisting the collar of his shirt. “I like my life.” But it was almost as if he could actually see his words striking an invisible force field around Lex’s head and evaporating into fragrant puffs. And then Roman saw that from Lex’s vantage point, all other lives were hard.
Joe gave Roman one more half-hearted shake and then stood up, nodded at Lex, and jumped down off the stage and back into the crowd just as Mr. Vickrah appeared looking mildly inquisitive.
“I’m fine,” said Roman, getting to his feet. But as soon as he was upright, the room started to spin and his vision clouded. The last thing Roman heard before he blacked out and collapsed from the effects of his concussion was what sounded like the theme song to Funfriend Fancyface blasting through the auditorium. But that couldn’t be right. This was not the right moment for it. This was very possibly the worst moment for it. He hoped that the Funfriend Fancyface theme song was just another symptom of his concussion, that only he was hearing it, and maybe it was, maybe he was.
Korie and Lex were dressed in their party clothes but they had not yet left for the party and Korie was starting to wonder if they would. They stood in Lex’s back yard and Lex threw a tennis ball for his yellow lab, Yab, which was a portmanteau of “yellow” and “lab.”
“He glares at me every day in the hall,” said Korie. Her gray dress had no sleeves, nor had it ever. It was intentionally designed to not have sleeves. Her high heels pushed down into the soft, cool lawn. “I see him glancing at me while he’s talking to his friends. It’s creepy, Lex, I think he’s planning something.”
“Nah,” said Lex. He whipped the ball to the other end of the yard where it hit the wooden fence on the fly and caromed back past Yab who executed a skidding 180-degree turn at a dead run. “I think Joe scared him pretty bad.”
“Sure, he was scared in the moment,” said Korie. “Maybe he’s scared of Joe. But he isn’t scared of me. Joe told Roman that I was the one who told Joe what Roman said about him. He’s going to come after me, Lex. He’s gonna try to punish me for what Joe did.”
“Here,” said Lex, handing Korie the squishy, slobber-soaked tennis ball. “You wanna throw it?”
Korie took the ball and threw it high in the air. It bounced once in the yard and Yab leaped and caught it cleanly.
“Maybe bad things don’t happen to you,” said Korie. “Maybe they never will. But they do happen to me. They have before and they will again.”
“But you’re my girlfriend,” said Lex. “So if something bad happens to you, that would mean something bad happened to me too. By association.” He patted Yab’s big, wild-eyed dog-head. “So I think you’re fine, Korie.”
His logic was comforting and terrifying at the same time. Korie didn’t know whether to hope he was right or hope he was wrong, and then she realized it made no difference what she hoped. She held out her hand toward Yab and he dropped the ball at her feet. She picked the ball up and squeezed it in her hand, feeling the warm dog drool push out between her fingers. Then she flung the ball toward the opposite end of the yard and Yab tore off after it in a flurry of furry fury. Spit flew off of the sodden ball as it arced through the air and struck the fence, leaving a wet circle on the wood. This time, Yab didn’t let the ball get past, intercepting it as it bounced back toward him.
“Good throw,” said Lex. He whistled at Yab.
“Thanks,” said Korie. She tried to think of what she would say about Lex if she had to have a rap battle with him right now, right this second. She couldn’t think of anything except stuff about herself that she wouldn’t want him to rap about, but she knew he never would, it would never even occur to him. It would almost certainly, in the end, be one of the all-time worst rap battles.