Back of the bus, homeward bound on a drowsy Thursday. Carlo is relaxing in the very last row, listening to Five Iron Frenzy on his Discman and gazing out the window at the world beyond.
Around him, other boys listen to their headphones, their cheeks bulging and their tongues turning strawberry red as they suck on Blow Pops. The girls are sharing whispered debriefings and flipping through Teen People and CosmoGirl. Their hair, caught in the cross-currents of the open windows, whips back and forth.
Mattie Heil, seated beside Carlo, lets out a dramatic sigh.
"Nothing ever happens on this bus," she says.
The volume on Carlo's Discman is low enough for him to hear, so he acknowledges her statement with a smile. He knows he doesn't have to speak a word of reply; Mattie will be more than happy to carry the conversation.
She's talking about their teachers, their latest assignments, which teen actors are cute and which ones aren't. He watches without comment as she unzips his lunch box and roots inside for a snack.
"Let me have your orange juice," Mattie says.
Carlo grants her the juice and a small stash of carrots, left over from lunch. Instantly she begins to devour them. A slip of a girl, she appears to have the metabolism of a hummingbird.
Suddenly she launches into a discussion about the upcoming spring dance and how much she's looking forward to it and how Kalie will probably go, too, and won't that be great?
"After the dance," she says between bites, "me and a bunch of people are going to Ybor to go to Joffrey's. You should come. I'll invite Kalie, and you can bring her coffee."
Carlo listens politely. He's not so sure about the Joffrey's scheme; he doesn't even know if Kalie drinks coffee. And if she did, would she really want him to bring her a cup? Carlo already knows about the dance and is hoping that Kalie will join him on the floor for one song. She is still on his mind nearly every hour of the day. At this very moment, he is wondering if he might have an e-mail from her waiting in his inbox at home, even though it's been weeks since she answered any of his e-mails.
None of this he shares with Mattie. When the bus arrives at his stop, he gathers his belongings.
"Okay," he says, standing up. "I have to get off."
Mattie moves her legs so he can scrunch by. "Do you have any more food?" she asks.
"No," he says, not even looking back.
She watches him go.
"Thanks for the carrots!"
Carlo's little brother, Vittorio, who has been sitting several rows forward, gets off the bus with him. Their dad is waiting in the Volvo wagon, grinning a dad grin.
Once they're piled in, Fraser Ottanelli glances in the rearview mirror.
"So, can I ask?" he says. "How was your day?"
"Fine," his sons answer together.
Fraser knows that if he's going to find out anything, it's likely to be here, on the ride home to Temple Terrace. So he tries again, asking if Carlo had a chance to talk to his math teacher about an assignment.
"No, because we got in trouble. All of us."
"What did you do?"
"So are you going to ask him tomorrow?"
"Yeah, if I have free time after my quiz."
These daily exchanges have become as ritualized as Kabuki theater. The dad probes at the edges of what he really wants to know, doing his best not to appear too interested. The son fends him off, giving up as little as possible.
When they reach the house, Vittorio goes to his room. Carlo heads for his dad's office to sign onto the computer.
"I'm gonna go check my mail," he says.
He's listening to the metallic song of the modem when a prompt appears on the screen. There's an instant message coming in from KTigger1011.
He blinks. Now another IM comes in.
i need 2 talk 2 u ... ok?
One letter is all he needs for a reply:
A storm of messages follows. Turns out that Kalie has been hearing rumors, saying how mad Carlo's been since she started going out with Gio. Carlo says the rumors aren't true. He says people are just trying to stir things up, get some drama going. But Kalie's not so sure.
alex d. said that ure really pissed off at me and that u hate me guts and all this other stuff ...
i never talk to alex, Carlo types back. just call me.
ok ... well ... wats ure #
The phone rings. By the time Carlo gets it, his brother's already picked up in another room.
"Retardo," Vittorio tells him. "It's for you."
"Hello?" says Carlo.
Kalie says hi back. Before she can say much of anything else, another voice interrupts.
"Who is it?" says Vittorio, still on the line.
This is too much for Carlo. For the first time in the history of the world, Kalie Wells is calling his house. But he can't hear a word she's saying because his little brother refuses to hang up.
"Who is it?" Vittorio says again.
"Dad!" Carlo yells. "Tell him to get off!"
Finally, he is alone with Kalie's voice. He has to hurry. His dad has informed him that he has three minutes before he has to start his homework.
Kalie wants to know what's going on. Does Carlo really despise her?
"No," he says. "I'm just jealous. That's all."
Suddenly Vittorio is back on the line. He has sensed that something critical is occurring. He is making noises. He's breathing heavily into the phone.
As if that's not enough, Carlo's dad is now standing at the office doorway, insisting that Carlo hang up and do his homework. Fraser doesn't know who's on the phone. His younger son, however, has informed him that the mystery caller is a girl. From what he's overheard, Vittorio has somehow concluded that her name is Heather.
"Say goodbye," Fraser tells Carlo. "Unless you want me to talk to her. No?"
Carlo holds up a palm. His dad disappears, and Carlo returns to the conversation.
"Alex and who? ... Yeah, I know her ... I told her to back off ..."
At the door, his father looms again.
"Bye, Heather!" he says loudly.
Carlo has no idea what the man is talking about. Who is Heather? He holds up one finger, trying to hang on. His father reaches for the phone.
Carlo bends over, keeping it away..
"Can I call you later?" he says. "Okay ... Bye."
For the next hour, he floats through the house. He's supposed to be doing his homework. Instead he plays a video game, reads the newspaper, pours himself a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats and plants himself at the kitchen counter.
His dad stands nearby, boiling pasta for dinner. He's still waiting for his son to open the books.
"Don't let me hover around you. Just do what you gotta do, and that way it's ..." A pause, while he searches for the right word. "... done."
As speeches go, this one isn't too bad. Direct and simple, firm but not overbearing. Still, Carlo doesn't seem to have heard a word of it. He looks at his father and smiles.
"It's a special day today," he announces.
Fraser stirs the pasta slowly.
"What makes it special?" he asks, as nonchalantly as he can.
Carlo pushes back his chair.
"I can't tell you," he says, and walks away.