FORGIVE ME, LEONARD PEACOCK
For the lighthouse keepers—past, present, and future
The following professionals read drafts of this novel and provided valuable insights: Alicia Bessette (novelist); Liz Jensen (novelist); Doug Stewart (agent); Alvina Ling (editor); Bethany Strout (editor’s assistant); Barbara Bakowski (senior production editor); Dr. Len Altamura (doctor of social work, licensed clinical social worker); Jill A. Boccia (licensed clinical social worker); Valerie Peña (licensed clinical social worker); Dr. Narsimha R. Pinninti (chief medical officer, Twin Oaks, and professor of psychiatry, UMDNJ-SOM); Meryl E. Udell, PsyD (clinical psychologist); Debra Nolan-Stevenson (licensed professional counselor); and Geetha Kumar, MD (associate professor of psychiatry, vice chair, Department of Psychiatry, UMDNJ-SOM; child/adolescent psychiatrist).
The core idea for this book was greatly nurtured by the many coffee talks I had with Evan Roskos. To my inner circle—and you know who you are—thanks for saving me a million times.
I prithee take thy fingers from my throat,
For, though I am not splenitive and rash,
Yet have I in me something dangerous,
Which let thy wisdom fear. Hold off thy hand.
—From Hamlet by Shakespeare
The P-38 WWII Nazi handgun looks comical lying on the breakfast table next to a bowl of oatmeal. It’s like some weird steampunk utensil anachronism. But if you look very closely just above the handle you can see the tiny stamped swastika and the eagle perched on top, which is real as hell.
I take a photo of my place setting with my iPhone, thinking it could be both evidence and modern art.
Then I laugh my ass off looking at it on the miniscreen, because modern art is such bullshit.
I mean, a bowl of oatmeal and a P-38 set next to it like a spoon—that arrangement photographed can be modern art, right?
But funny too.
I’ve seen worse on display at real art museums, like an all-white canvas with a single red pinstripe through it.
I once told Herr Silverman about that red-line painting, saying I could easily do it myself, and he said in this super-confident voice, “But you didn’t.”
I have to admit it was a cool, artsy retort because it was true.
Shut me the hell up.
So here I am making modern art before I die.
Maybe they’ll hang my iPhone in the Philadelphia Museum of Art with the oatmeal Nazi gun pic displayed.
They can call it Breakfast of a Teenage Killer or something ridiculous and shocking like that.
The art and news worlds will love it, I bet.
They’ll make my modern artwork instantly famous.
Especially after I actually kill Asher Beal and off myself.
Art value always goes up once the artist’s associated with fucked-up things such as cutting off his own ear like Van Gogh, or marrying his teenage cousin like Poe, or having his minions murder a celebrity like Manson, or shooting his postsuicide ashes out of a huge cannon like Hunter S. Thompson, or being dressed up as a little girl by his mother like Hemingway, or wearing a dress made of raw meat like Lady Gaga, or having unspeakable things done to him so he kills a classmate and puts a bullet in his own head like I will do later today.
My murder-suicide will make Breakfast of a Teenage Killer a priceless masterpiece because people want artists to be unlike them in every way. If you are boring, nice, and normal—like I used to be—you will definitely fail your high school art class and be a subpar artist for life.
Worthless to the masses.
Everyone knows that.
So the key is doing something that sets you apart forever in the minds of regular people.
Something that matters.
I wrap up the birthday presents in this pink wrapping paper I find in the hall closet.
I wasn’t planning on wrapping the presents, but I feel like maybe I should attempt to make the day feel more official, more festive.
I’m not afraid of people thinking I’m gay, because I really don’t care what anyone thinks at this point, and so I don’t mind the pink paper, although I would have preferred a different color. Maybe black would have been more appropriate given what’s about to transpire.
It makes me feel really little-kid-on-Christmas-morning good to wrap up the gifts.
Feels right somehow.
I make sure the safety is on and then put the loaded P-38 in an old cedar cigar box I kept to remember my dad, because he used to enjoy smoking illegal Cuban cigars. I stuff a bunch of old socks in to keep my “heater” from clanking around inside and maybe blasting a bullet into my ass. Then I wrap the box in pink paper too, so that no one will suspect I have a gun in school.
Even if—for whatever reason—my principal starts randomly searching backpacks today, I can say it’s a present for a friend.
The pink wrapping paper will throw them off, camouflage the danger, and only a real asshole would make me open up someone else’s perfectly wrapped gift.
No one has ever searched my backpack at school, but I don’t want to take any chances.
Maybe the P-38 will be a present for me when I unwrap it and shoot Asher Beal.
That’ll probably be the only present I receive today.
In addition to the P-38, there are four gifts, one for each of my friends.
I want to say good-bye to them properly.
I want to give them each something to remember me by. To let them know I really cared about them and I’m sorry I couldn’t be more than I was—that I couldn’t stick around—and that what’s going to happen today isn’t their fault.
I don’t want them to stress over what I’m about to do or feel depressed afterward.
My Holocaust class teacher, Herr Silverman, never rolls up his sleeves like the other male teachers at my high school, who all arrive each morning with their freshly ironed shirts rolled to the elbow. Nor does Herr Silverman ever wear the faculty polo shirt on Fridays. Even in the warmer months he keeps his arms covered, and I’ve been wondering why for a long time now.
I think about it constantly.
It’s maybe the greatest mystery of my life.
Perhaps he has really hairy arms, I’ve often thought. Or prison tattoos. Or a birthmark. Or he was obscenely burned in a fire. Or maybe someone spilled acid on him during a high school science experiment. Or he was once a heroin addict and his wrists are therefore scarred with a gazillion needle-track marks. Maybe he has a blood-circulation disorder that keeps him perpetually cold.
But I suspect the truth is more serious than that—like maybe he tried to kill himself once and there are razor-blade scars.
It’s hard for me to believe that Herr Silverman once attempted suicide, because he’s so together now; he’s really the most admirable adult I know.
Sometimes I actually hope that he did once feel empty and hopeless and helpless enough to slash his wrists to the bone, because if he felt that horrible and survived to be such a fantastic grown-up, then maybe there’s hope for me.
Whenever I have some free time I wonder about what Herr Silverman might be hiding, and I try to unlock his mystery in my mind, creating all sorts of suicide-inducing scenarios, inventing his past.
Some days I have his parents beat him with clothes hangers and starve him.
Other days his classmates throw him to the ground and kick him until he’s wet with blood, at which point they take turns pissing on his head.
Sometimes he suffers from unrequited love and cries every single night alone in his closet clutching a pillow to his chest.
Other times he’s abducted by a sadistic psychopath who waterboards him nightly—Guantánamo Bay-style—and deprives him of drinking water during the day while he is forced to sit in a Clockwork Orange-type room full of strobe lights, Beethoven symphonies, and horrific images projected on a huge screen.
I don’t think anyone else has noticed Herr Silverman’s constantly clothed forearms, or if they have, no one has said anything about it in class. I haven’t overheard anything in the hallways.
I wonder if I’m really the only one who’s noticed, and if so, what does that say about me?
Does that make me weird?
(Or weirder than I already am?)
Or just observant?
So many times I’ve thought about asking Herr Silverman why he never rolls up his sleeves, but I don’t for some reason.
Some days he encourages me to write; other days he says I’m “gifted” and then smiles like he’s being truthful, and I’ll come close to asking him the question about his never-exposed forearms, but I never do, and that seems odd—utterly ridiculous, considering how badly I want to ask and how much the answer could save me.
As if his response will be sacred or life-altering or something and I’m saving it for later—like an emotional antibiotic, or a depression lifeboat.
Sometimes I really believe that.
Maybe my brain’s just fucked.
Or maybe I’m terrified that I might be wrong about him and I’m just making things up in my head—that there’s nothing under those shirtsleeves at all, and he just likes the look of covered forearms.
It’s a fashion statement.
He’s more like Linda than I am.
End of story.
I worry Herr Silverman will laugh at me when I ask about his covered forearms.
He’ll make me feel stupid for wondering—hoping—all this time.
That he’ll call me a freak.
That he’ll think I’m a pervert for thinking about it so much.
That he’ll pull an ugly, disgusted face that’ll make me feel like he and I could never ever be similar at all, and I’m therefore delusional.
That would kill me, I think.
Do my spirit in for good.
It really would.
And so I’ve come to worry that my not asking is simply the product of my boundless cowardice.
As I sit there alone at the breakfast table wondering if Linda will remember today’s significance, knowing deep down that she’s simply not going to call—I decide to instead wonder if the Nazi officer who carried my P-38 in WWII ever dreamed his sidearm would end up as modern art, across the Atlantic Ocean, in New Jersey, seventy-some years later, loaded and ready to kill the closest modern-day equivalent of a Nazi that we have at my high school.
The German who originally owned the P-38—what was his name?
Was he one of the nice Germans Herr Silverman tells us about? The ones who didn’t hate Jews or gays or blacks or anyone really but just had the misfortune of being born in Germany during a really fucked time.
Was he anything like me?
I have this signature really long dirty-blond hair that hangs over my eyes and past my shoulders. I’ve been growing it for years, ever since the government came after my dad and he fled the country.
And my long locks piss Linda off something awful, especially since she’s into contemporary fashion. She says I look like a “grunge-rock stoner” and back when she was still around caring about me, Linda actually made me submit to a drug test—pissing into a cup—which I passed.
I didn’t get Linda a good-bye present, and I start to feel guilty about that, so I cut off all my hair with the scissors in the kitchen—the ones we usually use to cut food.
I cut it all down to the scalp in a wild orgy of arms and hands and silver blades.
Then I mash all of my hair into a big ball and wrap it in pink paper.
I’m laughing the whole time.
I cut out a little square of pink paper and write on the back.
Here you go.
You got your wish.
I fold the square in half and tape it to the gift, which looks quite odd—almost like I tried to wrap a pocket of air.
Then I stick the present in the refrigerator, which seems hilarious.
Linda will be looking for a chilled bottle of Riesling to calm her jangled nerves after getting the news about her son ridding the world of Asher Beal and Leonard Peacock too.
She’ll find the pink wrap job.
Linda will wonder about my allusion to Samson and Delilah when she reads the card, because that was the title of my father’s failed sophomore record, but will get the joke just as soon as she opens her present.
I imagine her clutching her chest, faking the tears, playing the victim, and being all dramatic.
Jean-Luc will really have his professionally manicured French hands full.
No sex for him maybe, or maybe not.
Maybe their affair will blossom without me around to psychologically anchor poor Linda to reality and maternal duties.
Maybe once I’m gone, she’ll float away to France like a shiny new silver little-kid birthday balloon.
She’ll probably even lose a dress size without me around to trigger her “stress eating.”
Maybe Linda won’t return to our house ever again.
Maybe she and Jean-Luc will go to the fashion capital of the world, the City of Light, auw-hauh-hauw!, and screw like bunnies happily ever after.
She’ll sell everything, and the new homeowners will find my hair in the refrigerator and be like What the . . .?
My hair’ll just end up in the trash and that will be that.
Or maybe they’ll donate my locks to one of those wig-making places that help out kids with cancer. Like my hair would get a second shot at life with a little innocent-hearted bald chemo girl maybe.
I’d like that.
I really would.
My hair deserves it.
So I’m really hoping for that cancer-kid-helping outcome if Linda goes to France without coming home first, or maybe even Linda will donate my hair.
Anything’s possible, I guess.
I stare at the mirror over the kitchen sink.