It had been raining all week, which was weird. It hardly rained at all that year, and never in winter.
When Gatsby came into history, his shirt was wet, and there was mud on his shoes and in his hair. He looked strange, and smaller than usual—pale except for a little scrape, raw and bright on the point of his chin. He was dragging his backpack by the strap, letting it hang down so that it bumped along the floor as he walked. When he dropped into his seat, it looked awkward.
“Sorry, Mister T. Unavoidable.” Which is what he always said when he was late, but his voice cracked a little. He kept opening his mouth like he wanted to say something else, but couldn’t make the sound come out.
When he saw me watching him, he stared back and raised his eyebrows. But when he saw that Valentine was watching too, he ducked his head, fumbling one-handed with his backpack. He looked sick, but sicker than normal.
Valentine leaned across the aisle. “What’s wrong—something’s wrong. What’s wrong with your arm?”
“Nothing.” When he took out a pen, he was shaking.
After roll, Tully told us to work on our final projects while he ran down to the library. He told us to behave ourselves, but not as though he expected that we wouldn’t.
After he was gone, Valentine turned to face Gatsby. “Something’s wrong.”
Gatsby looked away and said very carefully, “I kind of hurt my shoulder.”
Valentine was out of her desk now, standing over him, hands on her hips. “I want to see.”
He shook his head.
“God damn it, Gatsby. Let me see it.”
She grabbed him by the collar and yanked hard, and he shut his eyes, biting off a short, harsh cry.
She looked down inside the gaping neck of his shirt, then let him go, backing away stiffly, her arms at her sides, her voice high and quick and breathless.
“Ohmygod.” She said it in a rush, like it was all one word. “Jesus.”
He didn’t say anything, just nodded. He looked very tired.
“So, who did that? Who did that?”
He reached out with his right hand, his good hand. “V, I—”
She twisted away, skipping back. “Got in a fight. You got in a fight, Gatsby. What—was it over some petty drug bullshit? Did Shark-Boy tell you to ‘stand and recognize,’ some shit like that? You better $%&@ ing recognize this, Gatsby. You are on probation. You are not supposed to fight anymore.”
He opened his mouth. Closed it again.
“Take off your shirt,” she said, looking terrifying.
He got to his feet and tried to pull his T-shirt up one-handed, but he was shaking bad. When Valentine reached for him, he nodded and sighed.
She was careful with him, turning his body instead of his arm as she pulled the shirt over his head. He was wearing an undershirt, white cotton. His whole torso had a skewed look, crooked and slumped on the left side.
He stood with his eyes closed, taking deep breaths as Valentine raised the undershirt.
“This will hurt,” she said as she twisted it up and away from his shoulder.
Everyone was watching now, and a few people gasped. I sat perfectly still, hands clasped on my open book. I was thinking, How? How can that lump be white, when the skin all around it is bruised so deep it looks black? And then almost immediately, That’s bone. It’s white because it’s bone and I’m seeing where his bone has almost punched right through the skin.
It was the truth, too. The perfect curve and the spooky blue-white color of the ball-joint were clearly visible under his skin. All around it, the blood feathered just below the surface, making a bruised halo.
“Jesus, Gatsby,” Valentine said, letting him go. “That looks pretty bad.”
He nodded wearily. “I know. But it ain’t so bad. I mean, I still walked in here on my own, right? I’ll be okay.”
“But what are you going to do about it?”
“It’s not a big deal,” he said. “You just have to pop it back in. It’s easy. Just pop it back in there.” He smiled and it looked fake. “Come on. Before Tully gets back.”
“Can’t you go down to the office? Someone in the office could do it, right?”
“No,” he said. “Not without asking what happened.”
“Oh.” Valentine’s eyes were winter-blue, like ice floes. “Well.”
She helped him stand against the wall. Then with one hand, she cupped his elbow, and with the other, she reached for his shoulder, cringing, sliding the heel of her hand under the joint.
“Okay, now listen,” he said. He spoke slowly and clearly, looking into her face. “If you don’t do this like you mean it, it won’t go back in. I mean, don’t worry about hurting me. You have to just do it as hard as you can, and I’ll try not to move.”
“Oh, God.” Valentine was wincing, looking horrified, but she didn’t take her hands away.
Gatsby leaned his head back, closed his eyes. “Okay, now do it. But do it fast and do it right. ‘Cause I don’t think I can take if it you have to try again.”
“Hold still,” she whispered. Her hair hung down past the middle of her back, straight and shiny and very blond. “Please, please hold still.”
She was moaning under her breath as she lifted his elbow and slammed his shoulder against the wall. I’d never seen anyone turn gray before, even though I’d read all these war books and Gothic mysteries. I hadn’t actually believed them. The blood drained out of his face in a rush, leaving him a dirty, clammy color. His lips went white, his arms turned chalky. I could see the blue map of veins running under his skin, but he didn’t make a sound.
Valentine stepped back and Gatsby slumped against the wall, cradling his arm against his chest. They were both shaking a little.
“I’m sorry,” she said weakly, holding out her hands like she was stopping traffic, like she might catch him if he fell. “I can’t get it. Are you okay?”
He sort of laughed, but it was very quiet, and sounded more like he was clearing his throat. “Hurts so bad, I can’t decide whether to puke or pass out.”
“Sit down,” she said, pushing on his good shoulder. “Sit.”
Slowly, he slid his back along the wall until he was kneeling on the floor. He was breathing in long, sighing gasps, like he’d been running a long time and was finally allowed to stop.
It’s weird to think that I was there for all this. I was watching, fingers laced, not moving or looking away. I wanted, more than anything, for a grown-up to intervene, take it all back—the blueblack bruise, the lump of bone, the scrape on his chin.
When Tully finally came back in, everyone froze like we’d been caught doing something awful. He gave us a long, shrewd look, but didn’t say anything.
After awhile, Pixie and I went up to his desk side by side, not holding hands, but almost like we wanted to. There was still no sound on our final project, even though we’d recorded the whole thing three times and we asked him what we should do. We just kept acting like nothing was wrong.
Gatsby came over and stood patiently beside us, still cradling his arm, still white in the face. I looked up at him and he smiled, but his eyes had a dull, flat look. I thought it must be shock. The lump under his shirt was grotesque.
“Mr. Gatsby,” Tully said, raising his eyebrows. “Something seems to be troubling you. Are you hurt?”
Gatsby’s grin was sheepish. “I kind of messed up my arm. Nothing bad, but Mister T, can I go down to the office? It won’t take long.”
Tully looked at him closely for the first time. “Gatsby, what’s wrong? Why do you need to go to the office?”
Gatsby said, as if it were the most casual thing, “I just need to go down and get my shoulder popped back in.”
And Tully nodded. He looked like there were a lot of things he wanted to say, but in the end, all he said was, “Would you like me to write you a pass?”
“That would be nice,” Gatsby told him.
It was so weird—just the whole thing. I sat with Pixie and Trung, debating our presentation order in strange, hushed voices. Everyone was working on their projects, like everything was normal. Except Valentine’s hands were shaking and every time she said anything, it sounded like she was about to cry.
#4 was holding onto the corners of his desk and when I turned towards him, he looked up suddenly—a raw, peeled-open look that made me think of that day in the bus circle, the way he held his hands away from his body. I stared back at him, because it was uncomfortable, but at least it was something I recognized. I was just so relieved that at least someone minded.
After maybe ten minutes, Gatsby came back. He was still holding his arm against his chest, but the lump was mostly gone.
“V,” he said. “You gotta help me get my stuff together. I can’t do it by myself.”
Valentine began putting Gatsby’s books away. “Are you leaving?”
He nodded. “Yeah, they called my mom.”
Crystal looked up hopefully. “Taking you to the hospital, then?”
Gatsby got a weird expression. “No . . . they’re . . .” He laughed a low, nervous laugh. “They’re arresting me.”
“Arresting?” Valentine said in a vicious, incredulous voice. “Jesus, what did you do to him?”
“Nothing,” Gatsby said. “I never did anything to him.”
After he was gone, Crystal put her head on her arms and started to cry. I wondered how much of it was for Gatsby, and how much was just reaction. Trung got up and went over to her. I wasn’t surprised. He was just like that, warm and logical and comforting.
Crystal snuffled and raised her head. She was trying to keep her mouth from trembling. “I thought it would be all right. I saw, you know. I didn’t think he got hurt like that—you couldn’t tell—and he didn’t-he didn’t . . .”
“What happened?” Trung asked very gently.
“Shark-Boy,” she said. She was rubbing her elbows. “And Gatsby could have walked away, but he just stood there, he stood there, the whole time. He didn’t do anything.”
Trung leaned forward and said something soft and noncommittal.
“He always has to be like that!” Crystal blinked hard. “Always trying to be so tough, wanting to hear everybody say it—say, Gatsby, you’re so tough, you’re such a $%&@ ing badass. He could have walked away and it wouldn’t have mattered. Why did he do that?”
Trung said something close to her ear, but I couldn’t hear it. I wanted to. I wanted to hear the reason when Trung said it, because his expression was kind and because he always seemed so smart about people in all the ways I wasn’t. He could always seem to decode tone and gesture, or know what people actually meant.
All afternoon, I wrote down people’s conversations, every single thing that anybody said. My first attempt at a cohesive account was just five pages of neatly-attributed dialogue. I took the pages home with me, and tried so hard to figure out what the whole thing meant, when I was troublingly sure that in the end, it didn’t mean anything. That some things will always have a sheen of chaos to them. They will leave you standing there, rumpled and windswept, shaking your head and wondering what just happened.*
Tell me about injuries: the shocking kind or the messy kind or even the mundane kind. (I have always been mildly obsessed with all the dangerous things that can happen to a body.)
Tell me about chaos or times when everything seemed out of control and you waited for an adult to impose order. Or maybe you imposed order yourself? Those stories are good too—those ones are better.
*I’ll explain the sequence of events next week—because there is a rational explanation. Sort of. But at the time, this was only one of those hectic things that seems completely disconnected from anything real. It was like a dream that happened, and then the next day, we felt strangely obligated to come back and carry on like always.