ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE
"So I was reading this Vonnegut novel," I said to Samantha. "The main guy figures out that the number of people he's killed and the number of women he's slept with are the same."
Samantha didn't look up from her newspaper, as if she hadn't heard me. I went on.
"It was seventy-two."
Samantha pointedly turned a page. Every morning, we would repeat this ritual. She would sit at a cafeteria table, bottle of water to her left, low-fat bran muffin to her right, copy of the St. Louis Post in front of her. I would sit opposite and talk at her until she could no longer concentrate.
I continued my literary review. "So do you think that number's kind of high?"
Samantha folded her paper with a sigh. "For what, Leon? Killing people or sleeping around?"
Samantha always reminded me of a splinter of flint. She was narrow, hard, and angular. At seventeen, she was already a little old lady, with rimless glasses, short hair, and an enormous nose. Her breasts didn't sag, of course; she didn't really have any.
"Leon, how would I know? Why do you always want to discuss things like this?" She returned to her paper. The first-hour bell wouldn't ring for a few minutes, and I looked around the cafeteria for a distraction.
The Zummer High lunchroom was immense. Early-morning sunshine streamed pleasantly over us, thanks to some slanting windows near the ceiling. Now that spring was here, the windows turned the cafeteria into an unbearable greenhouse. At one end of the room, a poorly painted dog declared GO ZUMMER BULLDOGS! On the opposite wall, a portrait of General Montgomery Zummer glared at us over the soda machines. He'd once slaughtered many Indians on this very spot, back when St. Christopher, Missouri, was still just a frontier outpost.
Around us, teenagers poured into the school, back from spring break. A sea of white faces. Suburban students, all dressed in the same clothes, telling the same stories, sharing the same hive mind. If there was one thing more depressing than a suburban high school, it was a suburban high school in Missouri.
I turned back to Samantha. "You know, it's the same with me, Sam. I've killed and slept with the same number of people."
She didn't look at me. "A nice, round number, Leon?" She drew a zero in the air with her finger.
"It's bound to change."
Samantha took a swig of Evian. "Who are you planning on killing?"
I shoved the rest of her bran muffin into my mouth. Samantha had guessed my number correctly. Zero was the number of times I'd had sex. And the number of dates I'd had since the fall. Here it was, just after spring break of my junior year. I hadn't had a date since Angie Herber and I had made out after the homecoming game. She gave me the "just friends" speech the next day.
Why did every girl want to be my friend? They didn't even want that; Samantha was the only girl who came close to being my friend. Or my only friend who came close to being a girl.
The warning bell rang. Actually, it wasn't a bell but a long droning buzzer that grated on my nerves like an early-morning car alarm.
Students began to lumber to class. Samantha neatly separated her recyclables, grabbed her books, and walked away.
"Hey, Samantha," I hollered. "What's your number?"
She turned and indicated a digit with her middle finger.
Older high schools are architectural wonders, with the ornate exteriors, wooden trim, and murals by long-dead alumni. Newer schools are marvels of the twenty-first century, with gleaming metal fixtures, air-conditioning, and toilets that flushed.
Monty Zummer had been built in the 1960s. That meant blocky. Ugly. Cramped. Three generations of Zummer students had attended what was essentially an enormous bomb shelter. We used to joke that a busload of mental patients was accidentally delivered to MZH and it took them two weeks to realize they weren't in an asylum. The asylum served better food.
I stopped by my locker to get my stuff for chemistry class. There were almost two thousand students at this school, and half of them were female. So how come whenever I asked a girl if I could have the privilege of paying for her food and entertainment she always said no? Aside from the fact she didn't want to kiss me.
When I was in junior high, I was a nerd. The kind of guy everyone picked on. The last one chosen for teams in gym class. Now, after years of struggle, I'd succeeded in becoming an unknown. And when no girl knew you existed, odds were they wouldn't be receptive when you tried to get them horizontal.
Of course, my looks didn't exactly make girls turn their heads and drop their pants. At only five foot six, I had to look up at many of the girls at school. Puberty had come and gone without leaving me so much as a chest hair or a whisker. And my face . . . Some guys are just born handsome. I had a mug that looked like it should be hanging in a post office somewhere, with the title wanted for shoplifting and credit card fraud.
Instead of wavy brown hair, I had stringy locks the color of old hay. When I wore a hat, I looked like a scarecrow. I'd inherited my father's generous ears but not his noble nose. I was stuck with my mother's petite button nose.
And then there were my eyes. Some guys had steely blue orbs that, despite any physical shortcoming, could just freeze a woman in her tracks and hypnotize her with their raw power. I had two beady brown eyes that, no matter how hard I tried to look mysterious and cool, always seemed to say "It wasn't me who just farted."
I kicked my locker shut. Three billion women in the world, and the universe couldn't spare one for Leon Sanders.
Female voice! I swirled, waiting to see whatever gorgeous teenage queen wanted my attention.
Disappointed wasn't the word. I was . . .
Okay, disappointed was the word.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Playing with Matches by Brian Katcher. Copyright © 2008 by Brian Katcher. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.