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Project X

by Jim Shepard

Paperback, 163 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $14 |


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Book Summary

Hanratty and his only friend, Flake, struggle to deal with the nightmare of junior high school—bullying, girls who taunt them, jocks who beat them up, a creepy old man who stalks them, and a disaffected sixth grader who adores them.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Project X

First day of FS and where are my good green pants? In the wash. I have one pair of pants that aren’t clown pants and they’re in the wash. They haven’t been washed all summer but today, this morning, they’re in the wash. It’s too cold for cargoes and everything else in my drawer is Queer Nation, and sure enough I’m the only one on the bus in shorts. “Scorcher, isn’t it?” a ninth-grader asks when he goes by my locker. I’m standing there like I’m modeling beachwear. Kids across the hall chuckle and point. I almost head home right then.

“FS, man,” Flake says when he sees my face.

“I can’t take it,” I tell him. “It’s like, twenty minutes, and I can’t take it.”

“Look at your face,” he says, and he has to laugh. He doesn’t mean it in a bad way.

I put my head on my hands in my locker and try to tear the shelf off the wall.

“FS,” he says. At least our first period classes are near each other.

“FS,” I tell him back. We don’t even have homeroom together, though they told us over the summer we would. FS is fuckin’ school. We argue over who thought of it.

My homeroom teacher has a big banner up on the bulletin board that says welcome to eighth grade! Underneath it there’s a sign that says leave no child unsuccessful and a handout for “eight ways of being smart.”

In the doorway of first-period English my feet like freeze. I can’t even get into the room. I will not fucking do this, I think to myself. “What?” the English teacher says.

We’re not in the same gym class, either. And his is fourth period and the first day stuff runs long, so there I am in the cafeteria without him. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, I go to myself, like some god’ll say, “Oh sorry, Hanratty, you want your only friend? I’ll send him along.”

And who’s there: Hogan, Weensie, and all the other buttwipes who are always after me. The kid from Darien we call Dickhead who beat me with a plank last spring. He pulled it from his tree house, and his friends held me down. Flake said when he saw my back that I was lucky there were no nails in it.

“Look who’s watching his figure,” the kid goes. I have like one milk pint on my tray.

“Eat me,” I tell him. My eyes are tearing up and I want to pull them out and pound each of them flat on the tray.

“You’re not sittin’ on this side,” the kid says.

“I’ll sit where I want,” I tell him. But I stand there and then head across the room away from him. I want to set fire to every single fixture and chair and window and crappy water-stained ceiling tile in this cafeteria. I can never eat anything here. Just taking a sip of water makes me want to hurl.

I’d fight if it was just him. But he’s got eight thousand friends. Every asshole in the school is his friend.

I’m standing there with my tray. Pint of milk and a Rice Krispies Treat in a little dish. Every table’s worse than the one next to it. It’s the worst feeling in the world.

When you’re standing there in the middle of the floor with no one to eat with, there are about four kids who don’t look at you. The cafeteria holds three hundred.

“Nice shorts,” somebody says.

Even if you don’t eat, you have to just stay until lunch is over anyway. There’s a spot next to a kid from Latvia or Lithuania or something who smells. She has her hair moussed and smashed onto one side of her head like she fell asleep in tree sap. She showed up last year. She has fewer friends than Flake and me. And we only have each other.

“Is this seat taken?” I go.

“I yev a fren coming,” she says.

I end up next to a girl who has to be the most beautiful person in her zip code. The rest of the table is all her friends. One of them I know from grammar school.

“This is a S.M.I.L.E. meeting,” the one I know tells me. She shows me her folder: Students Making an Impact Locally and Everywhere. I eat my Rice Krispies Treat.

“We could sponsor a child,” one girl goes.

“For a year?” somebody says. “Well, what would you do?” the first girl goes. “Sponsor one for a week?”

They talk about a car wash. After a while they quiet down and I realize they’re looking at me.

“You know who Kel Mitchell is?” the beautiful girl asks me.

“What?” I go. I switch my milk and Rice Krispies Treat on the tray. I never know what to do with my hands.

“You heard of Kel Mitchell?” she says.

When I keep looking at her, she says about me to her friends, “He’s not a random guy.”

“He’s a random guy,” one of them says. “He counts.”

It’s some kind of bet. “Yeah, I know who he is,” I go. “He’s the guy on that thing.”

They’re looking at me like they found a little lizard asleep on the table. “What thing?” one of them says.

“That thing,” I go. My Krispies Treat’s all sticky. I can’t think of anything, but I’m not giving them the satisfaction. “You know, that thing on cable.”

Their faces look like I may have hit it. The beautiful girl goes, “You are so bluffing.”

“Mr. Hanratty,” my fifth period social studies teacher says in front of the whole class. I haven’t even sat down yet. “You going to be favoring us with more of your particular brand of sullenness this year?”

I write my name on the inside of the 20th Century Civilizations cover: E. Hanratty.

“What are you shaking your head about?” he wants to know.

I’m not shaking my head about anything, I tell him.

He asks if I’m calling him a liar.

“I’m not calling you a liar,” I tell him.

He says he’d like me to apologize to my classmates for wasting everybody’s time at the beginning of the semester.

I apologize to them. Kids snicker. “Don’t let it happen again,” a kid behind me murmurs.

“We’re going to be concentrating this year on Innovators,” the teacher says. “Men and women of the twentieth century who found new ways of addressing society’s problems.” A kid in the last row makes a farting noise. The kids around him make snorty and strangled little sounds.

“Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King,” the teacher goes. “Mr. Hanratty? Any names to add to our list?”

“Richard Speck,” I go.

So on day one I get detention. The secretary outside the vice principal’s office congratulates me on being the first kid called in this year.

I don’t see Flake for three straight periods.

“What’s the matter with you?” a girl asks me on the stairs.

I have to call home when detention’s over, since the buses all left an hour ago. My mother comes to get me and drives a mile and a half after I get in before she says anything. I measure it on the odometer.

“Your friend called four times,” she says. “He didn’t seem to know about your detention.”

“You mad?” I ask.

“No, I’m proud,” she says.

“Sorry,” I tell her.

“So what’d you do?” she says. “Talk back?”

“Talk back,” I tell her.

At dinner my dad tells me I’m grounded.

“No more malt shop for me,” I go.

He tells me I’m grounded an extra week.

Flake can’t believe it when I get him on the phone. “That’s fucked up,” he says. I can hear him sucking down a Go-Gurt. He goes through the things like he’s five years old. “How could you get into trouble so fast with everybody?”

He likes what I told the teacher. He thinks my parents should’ve cut me some slack. “FS,” he goes.

“FH,” I tell him.

All the lights and the TV finally go off around midnight. My dad peeks in to make sure I’m not on the computer or sharpening a spoon to cut out his heart. “You asleep?” he says.

“Completely,” I tell him. I have the covers over my face and a hand off each side of the bed.

“Try and avoid any felonies on day two,” he says. “Though I know you already set a standard for yourself.”

“I think Mom’s waiting for you,” I go.

“You got some mouth on you,” he says.

“Good night,” I tell him.

And I can’t sleep. The digital clock on the nightstand makes loose little flipping noises when the minutes change. I put my underwear over it and then can’t take it anymore and have to see how much time has passed. 1:14. 1:51. 1:54. 1:55. I lie there swearing like I’m calling Jesus Fucking Christ on my pillow radio. The flipping noises keep going, each one getting me closer to school.

I get up and go to the bathroom mirror. My nose is eight feet long and I’ve never had a haircut I liked. My glasses are crooked from always being broken. My lips are too big. If I get any skinnier I’ll be able to pull a sock up to my neck.

“Somebody help me,” I go. I squat on the floor with my hands behind my head and rock in place.

“You look worn out,” my mom tells me at breakfast.

“Can I just have orange juice?” I go.

“I’m worried about your weight,” she goes while she watches me drink it. My dad isn’t even up yet. He’s an econ professor at the college and his first class on Tuesdays isn’t until two-something.

“Your pants are ready,” she tells me, to cheer me up. “If you want to wear those green pants you were looking for.”

At the bus stop I squat again. I pull my knapsack by the straps up to the top of my head. The two ninth-graders waiting with me look weirded out.

“That girl who’s on everybody’s shirts is like Satan,” Flake goes at lunch. “She’s like Evil Incarnate.”

“You ever notice how many people around here wear green?” I ask him. “Everybody wears green.”

“Yo,” a seventh-grader says as he passes our table. Flake gives him a miniwave.

From the Hardcover edition.