Quincy’s volcano will win. Because his is made with tempera paint powder and tonic water; the new kid Eric’s just has regular water and food coloring. Quincy’s volcano will be bubblier and redder and it’ll win.
He’s sure of that as he watches the sixth grade science fair judges enter the gym with their arms full of ribbons and certificates.
And they walk to Eric’s poster board and pass him the gold medal. His parents pat him on the back and smile for the camera.
Then the judges make their way towards Quincy and drop the silver medal over his neck. He looks down at the plastic medallion on his chest. Second place. The corners of his mouth ache in that weird wobbly way they get when he holds the tears down in his throat. If he takes a breath now, it’ll end embarrassingly.
The camera clicks and whirs before he lifts his head, and no one pats him on the back.
He packs up his own tri-fold poster and lifts his volcano into a plastic tub. He takes it all from the old lunch table and leaves it on the floor by the overflowing trash can on his way out.
The school’s big double doors swing and hit Quincy’s backpack as he leaves. He falls on his hands - stinging the heels of his palms pink and scuffing the knees of his pants thin. He stands, rubs the concrete crumbs from his skin, and walks across the street. He bites back that trembling of his lips again.
It takes Quincy three times humming “Bennie and the Jets” to walk home.
The stairs of the porch creak. Wood bends and groans under Quincy’s sneakers as he reaches for the screen door. It rattles open. Rust flakes off its springs. His backpack is dropped on the kitchen table. It’s round, glass, and covered in Quincy and his mom’s fingerprints. She was so happy they day she found it. “For a steal,” she had said, while Quincy traipsed behind her through the Goodwill aisles.
He sighs as he yanks the fridge open and wonders how long overtime will last tonight. Quincy’s not sure what overtime is for, just that it means she gets home later.
He stares inside the yellow-lit refrigerator and picks at the frizz of his hair with his fingers. “Stop touching it,” he can hear his mom in the back of his head, “you’ll only make it worse”. He pats down the afro, pushes the Saran-wrapped plate of collard greens aside, and grabs a glass bottle of Yoo-hoo to take to his room.
Quincy sits on his bed and turns the television on to "M*A*S*H". Through static, he watches Hawkeye and Trapper prank the surgeon - Major Burns, Quincy thinks his name is.
He sips on the chocolate water and thinks about Eric. Apparently he turned eleven today, so he won the science fair for his birthday. Quincy won’t turn eleven till the summertime.
By the end of the school year Eric’s won mock debate, class president election, and assistant for Ms. Moley in the library. Quincy gets an honorable mention for losing mock debate, is elected class vice president, and sometimes gets picked to help Mr. Jusko pass out papers in homeroom.
It’s like that way for the rest of middle school.
Then Eric misses the first week of ninth grade.
Quincy notices his absence, but doesn’t think much of it. Eric probably goes to private school, now, or something.
Quincy can’t be bothered. His mom just got promoted to regional manager of all the A&P Family Marts in the Blue Ridge area. One day, she’ll control every Family Mart in Georgia.
They just moved to a new house. One with two floors and a garage, in a neighborhood where everyone’s grass has to be below a certain length. Quincy’s got a basketball hoop in the driveway next to Mom’s new station wagon. She’s gonna teach him how to drive it soon. And she let him trim his hair down to start locs, like a member of The Wailers. He feels lucky.
Eric shows up on the second Monday of ninth grade and walks into freshman lunch, in the middle of the day. He sits in the corner and doesn’t eat.
Quincy and Eric end up in a lot of the same classes. They sit near each other in AP Biology, Honors English, and Pre-Calculus.
Quincy often does the best in the class on his tests. The teachers always set his paper down face-up when they pass out grades - or they’ll hold it up in front of the class to use as an example. They usually don’t show Eric’s tests to him at all, and tell him to see them after class.
When the ninth graders take the fake preparatory version of the big standardized test that’ll get them into college one day, Quincy finishes it early and scores in the 97th percentile. Eric falls asleep and doesn’t finish the exam at all.
By tenth grade, Quincy barely sees Eric anymore. Eric’s been moved down to the regular classes and risks being held back. They have one elective together - Fine Art 1.
It’s Eric’s fifteenth birthday when Miss. Schaller announces the group project. The students have to create a mosaic as partners. She picks the pairs at random.
Quincy really sees Eric for the first time when their names are drawn one after the other, and they move to sit beside one another. Actually, Quincy realizes that Eric may not know who he is at all. They’ve never spoken, except for a few comments in the mainly teacher-led class office meetings and that time in eighth grade World History when Eric turned around and asked for a blue pencil. They were coloring maps of Egypt, because it was the fun activity at the end their Ancient Africa unit, and he needed to trace the Nile River. Quincy had fibbed and said he didn’t have blue (even though it was sitting at the top of his open pencil pouch and he’d already colored the Mediterranean Sea with it). If Eric knew it was a lie, he didn’t say anything. He just grinned and assured it was okay, and then he colored the Nile River in green.
“Hi.” Quincy picks at the spirals of his sketchbook as he settles onto a stool next to Eric.
Eric slouches, hands in the pocket of his hoodie. He used to keep his hair short, almost like he was in the army. Now it’s longer and wispy, covering his eyes as he stares down in his lap. Quincy remembers it being a soft brown, but now it’s shiny black.
Eric mumbles something that sounds like, “Hey,” and rubs the toes of his boots together.
“Those cherry red Doc Marten’s are so cool.” Quincy smiles. “I’ve always wanted some. Well, probably the black ones, though.”
Eric sits up a bit. “Thanks.” His eyes meet Quincy’s for a split second before he looks back towards the floor. “They’re technically my sister’s, but…” His voice falls off. He shrugs.
“Happy Birthday, by the way. It’s cool that it’s on a Friday.”
“Thanks?” Eric shifts in his seat. He looks up at the ceiling now.
Quincy chews on his tongue. “Uh,” he clears his throat, “I mean it is-“
“-it is your birthday… right?” He clears his throat again “Okay. Yeah, you’re welcome. Congratulations, I guess.”
Quincy holds his breath. He fights the urge to smack himself in the forehead and picks harder at the spirals of his notebook.
“So, what are we doing for this?” Eric’s knee bounces. He turns his head and smiles thinly. “I’ve never made a mosaic.”
“The most fun way is to use magazine clippings.”
Eric raises an eyebrow. His eyes are a deep amber. Almost red in the harsh lighting of the school’s LED’s. Quincy entertains the thought that Eric sorta looks like a younger version of the vampire in Love at First Bite. He chokes back a laugh and clears his throat one more time.
Eric snorts. “You have mosaic experience?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.” Quincy lifts his chin. “I’ve shredded a few pages of Jet in my day.”
Quincy and Eric meet by the flagpole after school. It takes some convincing, but Quincy gets Eric to stand on the back of his bike. Eric holds onto Quincy’s shoulders the whole way and almost rips his windbreaker right off him. It makes Quincy’s cheeks burn. Well, no, he blames that on the cold air whipping him in the face.
It takes Quincy humming “Space Oddity” once for them to make it to his house.
“My mom is in Smyrna for the weekend.” He tosses his bike down in the yard and watches Eric ruffle his windswept hair. Quincy pats his cheeks, pinches the baby fat of them between his fingers. It only makes the heat under his skin rise faster. “Which is basically Atlanta, so, I’m a little jealous.”
“What? You don’t like Cornelia? You know we almost hold the record for the world’s largest apple sculpture.”
Quincy shakes his head and leads Eric on the little stone path to the front door. “Atlanta has more than one movie theater. And super tall buildings. It’s a real city.” He opens the front door and gestures for Eric to go inside first. “I wanna work there one day, like my mom. I wanna go to Emory and get a business degree and get all successful.”
Eric just murmurs unintelligibly in reply. He sniffs the air in the entryway. “What smells so good?” He follows suit and slips off his shoes as Quincy does.
“Corn casserole.” Quincy can feel his stomach threaten to cramp in hunger. He pushes a few thin dreads back from his forehead as he looks over his shoulder at Eric. “She lets it cook for, like, five hours or something. Usually she leaves it before she’ll be gone for a while.”
“Oh…” Eric goes up the stairs behind Quincy. “Is she gone a lot?”
“I dunno. I guess.” He ceremoniously opens the door to his room, throwing his hands in the air. “This is where the mosaic magic happens.”
Eric surveys the purple walls - mostly covered in posters of Elton John, David Bowie, and the like. A signed one of Loretta Smith, which seems out of place among the others. He takes note of the open record player, where Prince’s self-titled record sits.
“You like rock? And,” Eric waves a hand to the blonde bombshell’s poster, “cheesy television?”
Quincy is quick to correct, “I like all music. And cheesy movies, too. Have you seen Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla?”
“I’m more of a Rocky franchise fan.”
Quincy passes silent judgment on Eric’s movie taste as he kneels to look under the bed. “This is where I keep the magazines I’ve smuggled from my mom.” He half-blindly pats around for the cardboard box he’s looking for. His fingers curl over the edge of it and he drags it out. Eric sits cross-legged on the floor with him and digs a hand in. He sorts through publications like Ebony and Jet, ones he doesn’t recognize, until-
“Dude!” Eric shoots up and grins, beaming in a way Quincy wouldn’t think possible of the usually moping, dull kid. He almost smiles along with him, about to ask what’s gotten into him. Then he sees, in the most searingly terrible red block letters: “PLAYGIRL”.
“Oh, my. Oh my God,” Quincy stammers. He stands and reaches for the floppy white pages of lifestyle tips for women and the occasional, casual, thrown-in nude man. It’s no use. Eric stands half a foot taller; on his tip-toes and with his arm stretched up as far as it can, there’s zero chance for retribution. “I seriously don’t know how that one got in there! I’ll just go put it back-”
“‘Oral sex’,” Eric announces. Then quietly adds on, “‘and other shattering disappointments’. Hm,” he hums in thought. “I wouldn’t know,” commentating coolly, with a sly smirk, he holds the skin mag just out of reach and knees Quincy in the chest as he scrambles over the taller boy. “‘Men and makeup, a match made in hell’?” A theatrical scoff. “I beg to differ.” He thumbs through more of the pages. “Oh, they’re washing a car. How nice. Teamwork.”
Quincy laughs painfully. “Okay, that’s enough.” His voice cracks.
Eric takes a seat on the bed. “Now this is what we should be using for our project.” He’s promptly tackled.
Quincy sprawls over him, grabs his wrist to yank the magazine away, and chucks it across the room.
Eric lies there, eyes wide, snickering to himself.
“Just pretend you didn’t see that…”
“I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
“Yes, yeah…” Quincy glares. His jaw tenses, as if that’ll push back the burning flush of his cheeks that comes back again. Eric’s face is close. Deep green eyes crescent-mooning as he laughs. He smells like the menthols Mom carries around in her purse, and hair spray. “Yeah, you did,” Quincy whispers. He pushes himself up from Eric’s torso. “But it’s fine, because, why would I care? I’m sorry for freaking out, so let’s just, work on this thing. Bro,” is added onto the end of his hushed rambling in solidarity.
Eric sits up and props his hands behind him. One leg tucks up and the other hangs over the edge of Quincy’s bed. He’s not laughing anymore, and he’s still smiling but in less of a shit-eating way. “Bro?” He raises an eyebrow.
“Can you go back to being all quiet and brooding?” Quincy scratches behind his ear. He looks down at the floor, at the toppled stacks of his mom’s magazines. This was the worst idea.
“I don’t care, you know. Bro.” Eric’s voice lilts deeper, more earnest. “Seriously, I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. I just haven’t read this issue, yet, so I was excited.”
Quincy narrows his eyes. “Shut up.”
“I mean it!” Eric defends. He scoots closer. “My mom left a lot of crap behind, including her ‘Playboy’ collection. I don’t hide it under my bed because that’s obvious and stupid. They’re in my underwear drawer.”
“And that’s better?” Quincy snorts. Eric shrugs. “Your mom? She…”
Eric shrugs again. “Eh, another time.”
Quincy nods to himself, slowly, as he thinks about a million things at once. The heat in his face spreads down to his chest. He glances sidelong at where Eric’s fingers drum against the duvet.
“You wanna watch Rocky II?”