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Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of Every Exquisite Thing
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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 Herr1 Silverman about that red-line painting, saying I could easily do it myself, and he said in this superconfident 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.2
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 Killer3 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.4
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.5
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 Linda6 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.7
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"8 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.9
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.10
The no-hair guy staring back at me looks so strange now.
He's like a different person with all uneven patches on his scalp.
He looks thinner.
I can see his cheekbones sticking out where his blond curtains used to hang.
How long has this guy been hiding under my hair?
I don't like him.
"I'm going to kill you later today," I say to that guy in the mirror, and he just smiles back at me like he can't wait.
"Promise?" I hear someone say, which freaks me out, because my lips didn't move.
I mean—it wasn't me who said, "Promise?"
It's like there's a voice trapped inside the glass.
So I stop looking in the mirror.
Just for good measure, I smash that mirror with a coffee mug, because I don't want the mirror me to speak ever again.
Shards rain down into the sink and then a million little mes look up like so many tiny minnows.
I'm already late for school, but I need to stop at my next-door-neighbor Walt's11 so that I can give him his present.
Today, I knock once and let myself into Walt's house because he has to walk slowly with one of those gray-piped four-footed walkers that has dirty tennis balls attached to protect his hardwood floors. It's difficult for him to get around, especially with bad lungs, so he just gave me a key and said, "Come in whenever you feel like it. And come often!"
He's been smoking since he was twelve, and I've been helping him buy his Pall Mall Reds on the Internet to save money. The first time, I found this phenomenal deal: two hundred cigarettes for nineteen dollars, and he proclaimed me a hero right then and there. He doesn't even have a computer in his home, let alone the Internet. So it was like I performed a miracle, getting cigarettes that cheap delivered to his doorstep, because he was paying a hell of a lot more at the local convenience store. I've been bringing over my laptop—our Internet signal reaches his living room—and we've been searching for the best deals every week. He's always trying to give me half of what he saves, but I never take his money.12
It's funny because he's rich,13 but always keen on finding a bargain. Maybe that's why he's rich. I don't know.
A "helper" comes and takes care of him most days, but not until nine thirty AM, so it's always just Walt and me before school.
"Walt?" I say as I walk through the smoky hallway, under the crystal chandelier, toward the smoky living room where he usually sleeps surrounded by overflowing ashtrays and empty bottles. "Walt?"
I find him in his La-Z-Boy, smoking a Pall Mall Red, eyes bloodshot from drinking scotch last night.
His robe isn't shut, so I can see his naked, hairless chest. It's the pinkish-red sunset color of conch-shell innards.
He looks at me with his best black-and-white movie-star face14 and says, "You despise me, don't you?"
It's a line from Casablanca, which we've watched together a million times.
Standing next to his chair with my backpack between my feet, I answer with Rick's follow-up line in the film, saying, "If I gave you any thought I probably would."
Then I follow it with a line from The Big Sleep, saying, "My, my, my. Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains," which feels pretty cool and authentic considering I have the Nazi P-38 in my backpack.
Walt counters with a line from Key Largo, saying, "You were right. When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses."
I smile even bigger because whenever we trade Bogart-related quotes, our conversations seem to make a weird sort of sense that is unpredictable and almost poetic.
I go with a Bogart quote I looked up on the Internet, "There never seems to be any trouble brewing around a bar until a woman puts that high heel over the brass rail. Don't ask me why, but somehow women at bars seem to create trouble among men."
He goes back to the Casablanca well and says, "Where were you last night?"
So I finish the quote, playing Rick and say, "That's so long ago, I don't remember."
He says, "Will I see you tonight?"
It sort of freaks me out, because no one will ever see me again after today, so the question seems weighty. I remind myself that he couldn't possibly know my plan; he's just playing the dumb Bogart game we always play. He's clueless.
I become Rick again and finish the quote: "I never make plans that far ahead."
Walt smiles, blows smoke at the ceiling, and says, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
I sit down on his couch and end the game the way we always do by saying, "Here's looking at you, kid."
"Why aren't you in school learning?" Walt says as the flame from his Zippo lights up his face and another cigarette sparks to life. But he doesn't really care. I skip school all the time just to watch old Bogart films with him. He loves it when I skip school.
He starts coughing and you can hear the terrible tobacco phlegm rattling.
A two-pack-a-day sixty-year-habit smoker's cough.
I just stare at Walt for a long time, waiting for him to wipe his hand on his robe and catch his breath.
I wish he were healthier, but it's hard to imagine him without a cigarette in his hand. Like I bet even in his high school yearbook pictures he was smoking. That's just who he is. Like Bogart too.
Man, I'm going to miss Walt so much. Watching old smoky Bogart movies with him is one of the few things I'll truly miss. It was always the highlight of my week.
Walt says, "You okay, Leonard? You don't look well."
I shake off the weirdness, wipe my eyes with my sleeve, and say, "Yeah, I'm fine."
He says, "You got all your hair tucked up into that fedora along with the tops of your ears?"15
I don't want to tell him I cut off all my hair, for some reason, maybe because Walt's one of my best friends—he really cares about me, I swear to god—and he'd know something was wrong if he saw my fucked-up haircut. He'd get upset, and I want to exit on a good note—I want this to be a happy good-bye, something he can remember and actually feel good about after I'm gone.
"Bought you a present," I say, and then pull the turtle-looking wrap job from the top of my backpack.
He says, "It's not my birthday, you know."
I hope he guesses that it's mine—or that he might figure it out, deduce it, so I wait a second as he fingers the present and tries to mentally guess what the hell it might be.
He looks so happy to get a present.
I kind of promise myself that I won't kill Asher Beal, nor will I off myself, if only Walt just says "happy birthday" to me one time, as silly and trivial as that seems.
He doesn't, and that makes me sad, even though I probably never even told him when my birthday was and I know he would definitely say "happy birthday" if I had.
But I really want him to say "happy birthday" to me without any prompting, and when he doesn't, I get to feeling hollow as a dry-docked boat or something.
"Why do I get pink paper? Do you think I'm a faggot?" he says, and then starts laughing really hard and coughing again.
I say, "It's the twenty-first century. Don't be such a homophobe," but I'm not really mad at him.
Walt's so old that you can't hold his bigotry against him, because for almost all his life it was okay for him to say "faggot" among friends, and then suddenly it wasn't.
He also says things like nigger and kike and Polack and chink and light in the loafers and sand nigger and slant and spade and spook and camel jockey and smokes and porch monkey and just about a trillion other awful slurs.
I hate bigotry, but I also love Walt.
It's like Herr Silverman teaches us about the Nazis. Maybe Walt was just unlucky being born at a time when everyone was prejudiced against homosexuals and minorities, and that's just the way it was for his generation. I don't know.
I'm starting to get sad about all that, so I change the subject by pointing at his present and saying, "Well, aren't you going to open it?"
He nods once like a little kid and then tears into the pink paper with his yellow shaky fingers. Halfway in he says, "I think I know what this is!"
When he has the Bogart hat unwrapped, he says, "Hot digitty dog!" all corny and nestles the hat down on his white hair.
It's a perfect fit, just like I knew it would be, because I measured his head once when he was passed out, drunk.
He composes his face, gets all black-and-white-movie-star-looking, and says, "I've got a job to do too. Where I'm going you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Leonard, I'm no good at being noble but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that."
I smile because he switched my name in for Ilsa's. He does that sometimes when doing lines from Casablanca.16
He smiles back real nice and says, "Wow. My very own Bogart hat. I love it!"
And then I just start lying and can't stop myself no matter how hard I try.
I don't know why I do it.
Maybe to keep myself from crying, because I can feel the tears coming on strong—like there's a thunderstorm in my skull that's about to break.
So I tell him I got the hat off the Internet on a site that auctions old movie props. All proceeds go toward curing smoker's cough and throat cancer, which killed good old unkillable Humphrey Bogart. I say the hat Walt's wearing right at this very moment was the same hat Humphrey Bogart wore while playing Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.
His eyes open really wide, and then Walt gets this sad look on his face, like he knows I'm lying when I don't have to—like he loves the hat even if it's not a movie prop, even if I found it on the street or something, and I know that too, that I don't have to make shit up because what we have as friends is real and true already—but I just keep telling mistruths and he doesn't want to call me on it; he doesn't want to make me feel shameful and fuck up the good moment that is happening.
That sad look on his face just makes me say things like "really" and "I swear to god" like I do sometimes when I am lying.
I say, "It's really really Bogart's hat, I swear to god. Really. Just don't tell my mom about this because I had to spend some serious money—like upwards of twenty-five grand I debited from her Visa card, which all goes to cancer research, all of it—and I had to get the hat just so that we might have a little piece of Bogie history, just so we might at least have that forever. Right?"
I feel so awful, because the truth is that I bought the hat at the thrift store for four dollars and fifty cents.
Walt's eyes look all glazey and distant, like I shot him with the P-38.
"So do you like it?" I ask. "Do you like owning Bogie's hat? Does wearing it make you feel tough and capable of saving the day?"
Walt smiles real sad, makes his Bogie face, and says, "What have you ever given me besides money? You ever given me any of your confidence, any of the truth? Haven't you tried to buy my loyalty with money and nothing else?"
I recognize the quote. It's from The Maltese Falcon. So I finish it by saying, "What else is there I can buy you with?"
We look at each other in our Bogart hats and it's like we're communicating, even though we're completely silent.
I'm trying to let him know what I'm about to do.
I'm hoping he can save me, even though I realize he can't.
His Bogie hat is gray with a black band and really looks like Sam Spade's. It was a lucky thrift store find. It really was. Like Walt was destined to have this very hat.
I remember this other weirdly appropriate quote from The Maltese Falcon and so I say, "I haven't lived a good life. I've been bad. Worse than you could know."
But Walt doesn't play along this time. He gets real twitchy and nervous and then he starts asking me why I gave him the hat at this particular juncture—"Why today?"—and—"Why do you look so sad all of a sudden?"—and—"What's wrong?"
Then he starts asking me to take off my hat, asking if I cut my hair, and when I don't answer he asks me if I've talked to my mother today—if she's been around lately.
I say, "I really have to go to school now. You're a fantastic neighbor, Walt. Really. Almost like a father to me. No need to worry."
I'm fighting the big-time tears again, so I turn my back on him and walk out through the smoky hallway, under the crystal chandelier, out of Walt's life forever.
The whole time he yells, "Leonard. Leonard, wait! Let's talk. I'm really worried about you. What's going on? Why don't you stay awhile? Please. Take a day off. We can watch a Bogie movie. Things will seem better. Bogart always—"
I open the front door and pause long enough to hear him coughing and hacking as he tries to chase me, using his sad drugstore tennis-ball walker.
He could die today, I think, he really could.
- Publishers Weekly Best Book
- "Books like Quick's are necessary...We should be grateful for a book that gets kids, and the leaders they'll become, thinking about the problem now."—The New York Times
- "Full disclosure: you might need tissues to make it through Leonard Peacock, but even if you don't, you'll likely be touched by Leonard's story."—Entertainment Weekly
- "At a time when bullying and gun violence is at the top of the national conversation, this novel servies as a literary segue for teens, parents and teachers into an open dialogue on sensitive topics."—USA Today
- "If only Hollywood could get novelist Matthew Quick to write faster. Everything the Massachusetts-based writer pens seems to be scooped up by the studios as soon as the books are bound."—The Los Angeles Times
- * "Quick's use of flashbacks, internal dialogue, and interpersonal communication is brilliant, and the suspense about what happened between Leonard and Asher builds tangibly. The masterful writing takes readers inside Leonard's tormented mind, enabling a compassionate response to him and to others dealing with trauma."—School Library Journal (starred review)
- * "Quick's attentiveness to these few key relationships and encounters gives the story its strength and razorlike focus...Through Leonard, Quick urges readers to look beyond the pain of the here and now to the possibilities that await."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- " Over the course of one intense day (with flashbacks), Leonard's existential crisis is delineated through an engaging first-person narrative supplemented with footnotes and letters from the future that urge Leonard to believe in a "life beyond the übermorons" at school. Complicated characters and ideas remain complicated, with no facile resolutions, in this memorable story."—The Horn Book
- "...the novel presents a host of compelling, well-drawn, realistic characters-all of whom want Leonard to make it through the day safe and sound."—Kirkus
- "Quick is most interested in Leonard's psychology, which is simultaneously clear and splintered, and his voice, which is filled with brash humor, self-loathing, and bucket loads of refreshingly messy contradictions, many communicated through Leonard's footnotes to his own story. It may sound bleak, but it is, in fact, quite brave, and Leonard's interspersed fictional notes to himself from 2032 add a unique flavor of hope."—Booklist
- "This is one of the most important books of our time."—A.S. King, Printz Honor author of Everybody Sees the Ants and Ask the Passengers
"Leonard's life teeters dangerously between moments of pain and beauty. A fast read, because I needed to keep reading. I will not forget Leonard Peacock. I love this book."
—Jay Asher, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Thirteen Reasons Why and The Future of Us
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 2014
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers