Here is an original short story that author and screenwriter James Grady wrote for students at McKinley Technology High School in the District. During a visit to the school as part of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation’s Writers in Schools program, a student asked him to write a story about the kids in the book club there — and he did. You can read a story about how this story came about in the post above.
(“Copyright James Grady”)
Nobody knew the truth about the first dead kid that Thursday noon as uniform-shirted 11th and 12th graders straggled into McKinley Tech High School’s third floor library for book club. The sun shone through the library’s tall windows of blue sky with a linear purity uncommon there in Washington, D.C., where all light normally bounces off white marble monuments to America’s hopes and history.
As he entered the library and saw only their group, Marcus who’d never said anything to that gone guy now said to everyone: “Did you hear Bleu’s dead?”
“Not Liss Gardens Bleu!” said Jasmine who insisted you call her Jazz.
“No, fool,” said Tango: “The other Bleu.”
“I didn’t even know there was another one,” said Jazz.
Tango hooked his backpack over a chair, said: “Maybe that’s why he done it.”
“Who done what?” said almost old enough to vote Brandon, nailing the heart of every day even as he prayed no one knew his own done what’s included engineering elaborate structures out of the hidden-under-his-bed box of childhood Legos.
“The other Bleu,” said Tango who never talked about his Mom. “Killed himself.”
“No he didn’t,” said Rasheda with a glaze in her brown eyes. She had long mirror black hair, fake gold hoop earrings, a soft smile that soared her parents’ hearts and scared them sleepless — and suddenly that noon, she knew: “The Giggler got him.”
The body count for book club totaled 22 teenagers. Rasheda, Briana, Jazz, Marcus, Juana, Brandon, Tango and Malik. Shakwia, Fayo and another Brandon. Leslie, Arnasha, Victoria, Kyra, Jennifer and Jhoana. And Jamal, who didn’t know about the same name jazz genius born the same year as his great grandfather, when lynching Black people seemed easy and they didn’t dare dream of being president like the man this high school was named for, a stalwart stern white face from Ohio who Wall Street spent $3 million to elect in 1896 and who never knew his crazed assassin. Mercedes, Shaniqua, and Chidinma were in the library for book club, too. So was Tshala.
But not the librarian/faculty sponsor for their club, Mrs. Ariana Jones.
‘Having her baby, thought glaze eyed Rasheda. And how can I know that? Smell new baby? I’m the last damn virgin in the whole wide world!
The library’s solid door waited beyond the club’s meeting place rectangle made from blond wood tables, all the way past the librarian’s deserted curved desk and beyond shelves holding books full of what grown-ups say we should read.
None of those high schoolers heard the library door close.
None of them heard the door lock.
Or noticed the steel doorknob quiver as outside in the empty hall, Mrs. Jones tried but couldn’t open that portal. A contraction hit her — 22 minutes apart. Odd: 22 kids, 22 minutes. But still time to tell her kids she’d cancelled the author scheduled to talk today. Tell them she’s going to have her baby two weeks early, but no need to worry. Alarm anyone. Excite the gun-toting cops downstairs at the front door metal detectors. School Emergency vibrations inhibit learning. Besides, there was time, lots of time.
But the locked door wouldn’t let her into the library.
Where 22 kids chose chairs around the rectangle of pushed-together tables. The rectangle’s hollow heart made the high school students all face each other.
“Who’s the Giggler?” said Malik who hated that everyone abbreviated his name to ‘Lik and who with every breath fell further into the eternal gravity of Rasheda. Why can’t she just see me, really see me, and why are her eyes glazed?
“The Giggler’s who did Bleu.” His own words made Marcus blink: Say what?
“That Bleu didn’t run with people.” Jazz fronted that she knew crews but secretly knew she didn’t. “Sure not anybody who’d shoot him.”
“He shot himself,” said Briana. Like I doomed myself by my own secret.
“He didn’t shoot himself,” said Tango. “The Giggler got him.”
Rasheda nodded. Jazz caught that as a signal from her best friend: Why is inside my head laughing that we’re best friends? Just like she thought Rasheda signaled, Jazz left a seat empty between them so…YES! ‘Lik grabbed that chair, telling himself that sitting next to Rasheda meant something because everything means something, so cosmically, if he’s sitting beside her…Sure, he heard snickering in his head, so what? He didn’t know that Rasheda’s smile meant she was happy that now Jazz had another chance to hook ‘Lik who Rasheda treasured as the best ever guy friend.
Everyone else tried to obey life’s invisible rules of who sits where with whom as they claimed chairs around the tables’ hollow rectangle.
“That Giggler,” said Brandon. “He’ some gangster?”
“No,” said Rasheda. “He’s…..”
‘Lik caught knowing like a virus: “The Giggler’s what this is all about.”
“This is crazy!” Juana yelled past her fear that everyone kept judging her. “The Giggler is a just character in the story we had to read by that writer who’s coming today!”
Briana’s head shook. “I know about the Giggler. And I didn’t read that story.”
‘Lik blinked. “The Giggler isn’t in that story. Not in words. That story is about people who work the Capital dome. They wear suits for uniforms instead of maroon or white or gray shirts like us. They think they know what’s going on, that they’re making it all happen, but they’re just like us.”
Juana, who didn’t dare admit that she wanted to be a lawyer because this was the best D.C. public high school she’d ever test into but everyone else in the school was a math or science star, said: “So every place is just like here?”
“Quick before we get made to forget!” said ‘Lik. “Who knows the Giggler?”
Some fast, some slow, everyone nervous, 22 high school teenagers in the capital city of an atom bomb superpower all raised a hand that said I do.
“What’s going on?” said Tango. Now they’re all staring at me!
Outside in the hall, contractions now came every18 minutes. A wave of oh-oh surfed Mrs. Jones. Her quivering legs demanded all her energy to not fall on her baby belly. My cell phone. In my purse. In my purse locked in my desk in the library.
The locked-her-out library.
“What happens in the story where the Giggler ain’t?” said Tango. I never say `ain’t’ and now I can’t stop them from ragging on me for that, too, plus my mother!
“Some political guy and a woman who’s doing wrong fall in love and they both get nailed when he tries to make everything right,” answered Marcus.
Thinking: I should have talked to Bleu. Not my fault. Is it my fault? My fault!
“And there’s no Giggler in that story,” said Brandon. “Not even the word giggle.”
Tango’s head throbbed. Stop! Gotta make it…them…stop!
“Being giggled at sets you on fire,” whispered Juana.
Tango burned: Show them.
Outside in the hall, suddenly it was 17 minutes between contractions.
“That’s how he got Bleu,” said Rasheda. “The Giggler kept coming at him, all day, all night, nothing else Bleu could hear or see or believe and The Giggler….”
“Put the gun in his hand and pulled the trigger,” said ‘Lik.
“How do we know that?” said Juana, who wore a bracelet for her church.
“That’s not the big question,” said Brandon.
Tango saw blue sky filling a nearby tall window three stories above city cement.
The coolest sound is busting glass.
Your name will live forever! screamed inside Tango’s skull.
Brandon said: “The big question is, what’s the Giggler going to do now that we know about him?”
“Nobody sees the Giggler,” said Briana. Please please please nobody see me!
“Not even in the mirror,” said Marcus. “That’s where he hides.”
Did I see me showing in the mirror? Briana couldn’t be sure. Only five weeks since she crossed that street because of a them, not a him. Not like Jazz who everyone —
With a blink, Briana realized: Everyone only knows what they think they know.
Like she thought she knew his eyes, how they saw you as someone special. Those eyes pulled her heart. Made her mouth dry. But only after she’d crossed that street did she realize he saw her eyes as only mirrors for himself, not reflectors of the two of them together. But she’d already crossed that street to here, now, doomed to where her brain like a computer monitor screen gone mad kept flashing LATE!
A+ student Briana whose idea on how to cure cancer held valid even after days of internet surfing medical journals tried to picture raising a child while raising herself.
Couldn’t as she heard ‘Lik say: “None of us would have believed about the Giggler if we hadn’t talked about him.”
“When people know your game, you gotta protect your flame.” Brandon shook his head. “When did I start talking fake Go-Go?”
“It’s not you,” said Jazz. “It’s him.”
“He can’t let us out of here,” said Marcus.
Tango’s pounding heart roared: Do it! Do it now! Get out of here!
“No!” said Briana. “He wants us to go out there!”
“And be alone,” said ‘Lik. “All alone.”
“Ahhh!” Tango lunged toward the tall window.
Busting glass and a vision of breaking out free into blue sky —
Marcus grabbed the leaping boy’s maroon shirt.
Tango crashed to the library’s tiled floor, pulled Marcus with him. Classmates swarmed them. Grabbed Tango, lifted that limp 17-year-old back onto his chair.
“What was that!” yelled Briana. “What were you doing?”
“He was gonna let me fly,” muttered Tango.
“He was making you like Bleu,” countered ‘Lik. “Forever gone.”
Instinct or inertia or inevitability settled them all back in their chairs facing each other around the hollow rectangle of tables.
“But we beat him!” said Juana.
“This time,” said Rasheda.
“Why is he doing this to us?” said Tango and they knew he was back with them.
“Because we’ll tell people about him, “ said ‘Lik. “We’ll tell them even if they’ll think we’re crazy, playing some kind of high school nonsense, that Bleu and Tango’s suicides drove us nuts or that we came in here and smoked weed.”
Marcus said: “We’re trapped.”
“If we stay here,” said Rasheda, “we know who the Giggler is, but he’ll work on us to do something that will wreck our lives, something so people won’t believe us. Start us fighting or…I don’t know, he doesn’t know yet. He’s a nimble _________.”
“If we bust out,” said ‘Lik, “he’ll come after us one at a time when we’re alone.
“We all end up alone,” said Rasheda. “Even if we get married.”
Get married! thought ‘Lik. She thinks about getting married, too!
Outside in the hall a vision of her husband flashed through Mrs. Jones as a contraction hit and her eyes hit her watch: No! They’re coming faster! She pressed her spine against blue lockers that framed the locked library door.
Inside the library of trapped teenagers, Briana said: “How come the Giggler can’t let anybody know he’s real?”
“Because then maybe people will figure their own way to deal with him,” said Tango. “Then maybe he…Poof, like smoke. Gone.”
“There’ll always be a Giggler,” said ‘Lik.
“But if he’s smoke instead of fire,” said Rasheda, “he’s not that much.”
“Whatever that’d mean,” said Marcus, “it scares the Giggler.”
“And he can’t let us put him at risk,” said Juana. “So he’s gotta do us.”
“Or we gotta do him,” said ‘Lik.
Silence rolled through the library.
Until Marcus said: “How come we know about the Giggler now? Could it be because of Bleu’s sui– I mean, murder?”
“Or Mrs. Jones’s baby? Weird light outside?” said Rasheda.
The universe squeezed Briana. Nobody knows. Nobody knows but me.
And The Giggler.
“Whatever,” said Brandon. “We’re here, now. Trapped with him.”
“Think!” said Jazz: “What brought us here? Why’d we join book club?”
“Because it will look good on a college application?” said Juana.
“No,” said Tango. “We all create excuses to do what we want, but why this?”
“The stories,” whispered Briana.
“Stories let you see how things might be,” said Jazz.
“Everybody wants to see how things are,” said ‘Lik who sat beside her.
“No,” said Rasheda cosmically sitting beside him. “We want to see things are how we want them to be.”
Tango said: “Maybe stories help us handle all that.”
“That’s it!” said Marcus. “Stories show us there might be another way we can make our lives work!”
“So maybe we can make getting away from the Giggler work!” said Juana.
“If we think of all this as just a story!” said Tango.
“We can blame the author!” said Briana. Blame me. I can only blame me.
“We don’t need to blame anyone if we say today is just a story!” said ‘Lik.
“Any worth it story is about how living is more than just being here,” said Jazz.
“Living is about dying, too,” said Briana. “You need one for the other.” The universe gripped her tighter.
Brandon said: “What matters is how you do what you can.”
“How are we going to do this?” said Rasheda.
Outside in the hall Mrs. Jones slid down the wall of blue lockers until she was like a mountain-centered body blocking the library’s only door. She felt her legs bow wide in her maternity dress, felt her mouth strain open but scream, she could not scream.
Inside the library, Marcus said: “Every story’s gotta have somebody who loves something. Otherwise it’s just data.”
“I don’t think love is enough to get us out of here,” said Rasheda.
“Love is never enough,” muttered ‘Lik.
Jazz sighed. Why is he so damn right?
“So think about this like who we are,” said Marcus. “Math and science geeks.”
“Don’t let, like, the `tech’ name of our school fool you,” said Tango.
“Yeah,” said Juana. “Like the Giggler. ‘Nothing funny about him.”
‘Lik felt it would be funny to call Juana a — No! Get out of my head Giggler!
“Think science!” Marcus felt the weight of guilt about Bleu push him down, but he absorbed and transformed the push into a springing rebound. “Maybe it’s — Flux! No, a flex of energy! Like Mr. Hugo talks about in AP physics!”
“You are too far out there,” said ‘Lik.
Rasheda ignored ‘Lik…
Jealous I’m not jealous!
…as she asked Marcus: “What do you mean?”
“Everything is everything, right?”
“Oh, that really helps!”
“Yes: everything is either matter or energy, constantly converting from one to another, Big Bang to whatever and back again.”
“I want to go back to where I didn’t know about the Giggler,” said Tango.
I want to go back to before I crossed that street, thought Briana.
A singsong in her head teased: I got a secret and I’m gonna tell!
Marcus ranted: “Who knows why here, why now? Boulders fall off a cliff. A guy honks his horn on Georgia Avenue. A soldier from last year’s senior class gets blown up in Afghanistan. Today’s sunny. Cause, effect, coincidence, energy to matter and back again, flex and flux. Action, reaction. Maybe it’s the convergence of Bleu’s death, of Mrs. Jones having her baby, of fluxes and flexes we don’t know. Maybe it’s us together, vibrating secrets, our own intensity letting us perceive the Giggler and —”
Jazz whispered to ‘Lik: “Do you get what he’s talking about?”
‘Lik whispered back: “About like you.”
Outside in the hall doorway, Mrs. Jones sprawled on her back, unable to scream that it was now, and now was about tearing her apart.
“Wait!” said Juana: “If there’s a Giggler, are there others like him?”
Tango said: “Other…whatever the Giggler is, like spirits or ghosts or–”
“Not super-natural,” interrupted Marcus: “Hyper-natural.”
“Essences,” said Brandon. “Of us. Of life. Of everything, even ideas, notions, emotions. Like…phantoms. The phantoms got energy and they sure as hell matter. They react and act. They push us just like we push them. We shape each other. And sometimes, if they get too strong or out of whack –“
“Proportion,” said Brandon, who got a perfect SAT score in math.
“Justice,” said Juana.
‘Lik said: “Justice and proportion don’t go to high school.”
Marcus said: “But we gotta use where we are now to beat the Giggler.”
“That’s gotta be our story!” said Rasheda. “That’s gotta be what we do!”
No! thought ‘Lik. Stab no pen in Marcus’s eye because Rasheda thinks he’s cool!
“When phantoms like the Giggler get out of proportion, they dominate us.”
“Like life is giggling at us. People mocking us on the Metro. Dis’ing us.”
“Or you love the wrong person,” said ‘Lic who sat between Rasheda and Jazz.
“Most things you do on your own,” said Briana. I did it. I did it on my own.
“Yeah,” said Tango, “depending on how you get to balance the phantoms.”
Marcus sighed. “Bleu couldn’t take nobody ever noticing him so the Giggler got to take him and his energy, and that made the Giggler stronger.”
“How are we going to get out of here alive?” said Brandon.
“What meds are you on?” said Marcus. “Nobody gets out of this flux alive.”
“But we don’t have let it be the Giggler or one of his kind killing us,” said Rasheda. “He’s already got one dead kid, one almost hit the concrete.”
“We’re all just kids!”
‘Lik shook his head. “Life made us done being just kids.”
The steep zig-zagging switchback stairs outside this third floor library. Jazz knew them. ‘Gotta stop doing ‘most anything so people won’t be mean to me but just a nudge and Tango who called me `fool,’ the zig-zag stairs and Tango who wants to do so anyway gets nudged, flips over the rail falls screaming…
Rasheda’s hoop earrings swayed. “You think we can control the Giggler?”
“No,” said Tango, “but maybe….”
“Maybe we can push him back into proportion,” said Brandon. “So he and other phantoms won’t get us to jump out a window to a dead that makes them stronger.”
“We can’t run because we can’t hide,” said Marcus. “So don’t hide who we are. Give up what the Giggler can use against us. Or at least some of it. I got a million secrets and shames to confess that would make you all giggle.”
“Plus, we gotta find others like the Giggler,” ‘Lik. “I don’t know why, but –”
“The Observer Effect!” said Marcus. “Quantum physics! Proportional reaction!”
Jazz whispered: “He is like, so far out there.”
“But he’s right.” Rasheda shook her head. Her gold hoop earrings swayed. “When Mrs. Jones’s baby gets born, when people come in here to find us, the energy…I don’t know, but then this moment and our chance is over.”
“He’ll be stronger,” said Jazz. “And then he gets to choose our when and how.”
“Telling secrets won’t be enough,” said ‘Lik. “Us seeing other phantoms won’t be enough, either. For the story, we gotta find something for us all to love.”
“What? School spirit?”
Think of time as a red balloon.
A limp red balloon flat in the palm of your left hand.
With a black Sharpie pen, maybe you can write one name on the limp balloon. Maybe two. But not 22 names and their secrets. Unless you use the air of your life to blow up the red balloon until it’s a sphere the size of a basketball. Then write on it.
Rasheda felt a girl she only kind of knew take gentle hold of her right hand. Rasheda took ‘Lic’s hand in her heartside hold, and though she felt him thundering through their touch, what she felt more was how he took Jazz’s hand in his. Jazz reached to do the same with all the others all around the table, 22 teenagers reaching past themselves to link hands, to connect, to defy being alone, to be rebels, to love.
And time expanded like a red balloon.
So time there was for Briana to feel a steel grip loose her guts, to sob, confess what I’m bleeding meant. Brandon revealed his little kid Leggos. Juana admitted that she was terrified she didn’t belong anywhere. Tango told how his mother left him at his grandmother’s before she jumped in front of a Metro train. Jazz whispered how no one right would ever love her. ‘Lik told Rasheda his big secret of loving her, only to be stunned as Brandon said: “Everybody in school knows that!” Rasheda shook her head at ‘Lik. “I don’t love you that way, I love you that way,” she said, nodding to how he sat beside her. Then she nodded to how they sat holding hands with all the others around the tables’ hollow rectangle. “And I love you this way.” She whispered she was afraid she’d betray herself and be only who it was easy to be. Marcus blurted out that his parents’ money had come up short, the scholarship might not come, and he feared trading his high school uniform shirt for an electronics store’s salesman shirt instead of a white lab coat. Everyone around the table revealed themselves. “I just want a decent job!” “I don’t want to disappear!” There were harsh secrets. About pain. Loss and never gonna get. About done wrong and didn’t do right. And there was time to tell all that like stories someone could giggle at, stories able to be scrawled in a black Sharpie pen because their time expanded like a red balloon.
The hollow rectangle the teenagers faced vibrated. Filled with billowing clouds of sunrise pink light swirling with phantoms, a hundred shapes of hate, a thousand faces of fear, starving slivers of greed, and yes, oh yes: there was the Giggler. He looked like they each expected and dreaded, but much smaller because now he was not alone. Clouds mushrooming in the heart of that rectangle of tables floated phantoms of gratitude and kindness, joy. Awareness tingled through their connected hands like electricity. They saw shades of yesterday, an infinity of tomorrows, knew right now. Then the clouds of phantoms became a chord hit just so, vanished as the black and white piano keys and all the fingers on them in proportional harmony sounded one perfect clong.
And time became a limp red balloon flat in the palm of your left hand.
Outside in the hall, Mrs. Jones’s water broke. An English teacher going to the Administrator’s office saw her sprawled on the floor, ran to her with his cell phone.
Inside the library, teenagers held hands around a rectangle of only breathable air.
All of them heard the library door unlock with a click.
After the ambulance left with the mother and new baby, after campus cops shooed other gawking students back to afternoon classes, after the Administrator summoned a janitor with a pine scented mop & bucket, that Administrator turned to the cluster of 22 kids who’d been in the library the whole time, said: “What were you all doing in there?”
“That’s a long story,” said Marcus.
Rasheda said: “But just a story.”
“About us,” said the young man whose real name is Malick.
“Copyright James Grady” — May not be republished.