The world, at times, is not a happy place. So it was for Al Camus from the time he was a small girl. If he was a girl -- which he doubted. He was also never small. Large, tubby, corpulent: these were the adjectives that described Al.
"Alberta!" his mother hollered from the bathroom. "You used the last tampon and didn't tell me!"
It was useless to explain to his mom that he couldn't have told her he'd used her last tampon because boys didn't use tampons. Al's mom believed he was a girl. Al's mom was frustratingly unenlightened about the world.
Often, and especially at times like these, Al wished his mom were Japanese. Oh, she was Japanese; she just wasn't uber identity-based Japanese. She was American and had slovenly American ways. When Al passed the bathroom, he had to turn his head because the bathroom door was cracked open, revealing the mess of clothes and towels on the floor. At dinnertime, Al generally wished his dad were really French, too, so they could eat decent food.
Put it all together, and Al was disgruntled with his life. He snagged a package of Nutter Butters and a bag of Hot Cheetos, and made his way to the back patio table where he could work on his homework in peace. He swept off his dad's beer cans and cigarette butts and spread out his books. He opened his math book and closed it. Al hated math. He opened his science book, and then shut that one, too. He was failing science, and it was too late in the year to fix it.
But Al had a bigger problem. Tomorrow, he had to give his oral report for history class. The students had drawn World War II topics from the teacher's disgusting greasy ballcap; he had drawn "kamikaze pilots". At his peak performance, Al was a mediocre student. He had resigned himself to this reality years ago. Someday, he would no longer have to be a student. For now, he put most of his effort into keeping his head above the social waters.
Oral reports were not the best way to prevent this particular style of drowning. By now, it was standard practice for someone to make farting noises at him while he walked up to the front. Last year in English, someone had oinked like a pig, while Al had stumbled, blushed, and forgotten what his topic was mid sentence. It didn't matter that the teacher had sent the oinker out of class because the damage had already been done. Even the teacher couldn't quite keep the grin off her face.
This year, he'd prepared ahead of time by dying his hair black, and then adding white stripes. Sick dyed hair was a good way to gain instant street cred. Until oral report day, though, he had to wear a beanie. He didn't want the shock value to be lost.
Al's phone bleeped at him, and all thoughts of schoolwork fled from his mind. Well, not exactly. Al was trying to recruit the class gamer boys to help him with his presentation by doing cosplay. So far, two wanted to be samurais, and the third said he would come as a sumo wrestler if it wasn't blatant cultural appropriation.
"But I'm Japanese," Al reminded them.
They'd all laughed uproariously. "Sure, you are, Alberta."
They'd repeated his name several times, as if it was relevant to being Japanese or not.
One of the samurai volunteers had just texted him to ask him where his sword was. Al had promised to provide real swords in exchange for their help. It had seemed a good idea at the time, an easy prop to acquire -- surely, something the school would allow once they realized it was for a history lesson. Because kamikazes. Because kamikazes had nothing to do with samurais, but they were both Japanese, and Al was Japanese, so...
"I'll have them on the day," he texted back.
"You'd better," was the response.
Al racked his brain, trying to come up with a secondary option. If he couldn't get a hold of real samurai swords, maybe he could empty his mom's change jars and buy Nerf swords at Wal Mart. If he couldn't get anyone to drive him there, he guessed cardboard and foil would look snazzy.
His phone bleeped again. "Hey, ur going to be the sumo, right? Lololol."
That was all the text said. Al's face heated up, and his heart pounded. Didn't the gamer boys like him? Wasn't he one of them? Maybe they wanted to include him in the cosplay. Maybe it wasn't a dig on his weight.
Who was he kidding? It didn't matter, anyway. What mattered was their making him look cool.
From the kitchen this time, Al heard his mom hollering at him. "Al, get in here and clean up this mess! I want the kitchen clean when i get home from work."
His mom worked nights at Circle K. Since his dad was still gone God knew where, nobody would be around to take him to Wal Mart. Al would have to make cardboard swords. If he worked really hard on the design, they might look even better than real ones.
He pushed aside his largely empty 3x5 cards and spread out some soggy broken down boxes that were in a stack on the porch. So he hadn't gotten around to writing relevant facts and information on the cards. He figured he could fudge a little, as long as everybody was distracted by samurais.
After working steadily for a couple of hours -- he'd never had any intention of doing what his mom had told him to -- his swords didn't live up to the image in his head.
But he was tired now, and he had to live with what he'd prepared for his oral report on kamikazes, which included a few samurai swords and a vague idea that kamikazes were suicide pilots. He'd be fine.
Alberta was never fine. When he rolled himself out of bed the next morning, he threw up. Nerves. Or too many Hot Cheetos. Why couldn't his parents make dinner like normal people? He opened a bottle of Red Bull and chugged it. After that, he pulled off the beanie he'd been wearing for a week and pressed his hair down with water. After that, he barely had enough time to make a run for the school bus.
Once he'd managed the social nightmare of sitting down, he realized he'd forgotten the swords. It was no use asking the bus driver to stop so he could run home and fetch them. She waited for nobody.
The school's air conditioner had broken, which made Al sweat profusely. That didn't even count the sweat that poured down when he thought of history class. He saw the gamer boys at their lockers, and he turned from them, afraid. They weren't popular. It wasn't that. They had a place in the world, and Al didn't.
If they helped him, people would say, "Oh, I didn't know Al was a geek. That explains everything."
But eventually, history class rolled around, like all dreaded classes did. And when he arrived, there was nobody there. A note hung on the door: "Meeting outside today at the lunch tables. Too hot inside!" Al groaned. Sunlight was the worst kind for his complexion.
From a distance, he watched his classmates settled comfortably on the benches, including the gamer boys, who were leaning over their phones. Phones weren't allowed inside, but now they were outside, so...
Al pulled out his phone. There was a single text: "No swords, no deal. But awesome sumo costume."
He couldn't do it. He couldn't go through with it. And that was when it happened, the sudden compulsion to squash them like the tiny insignificant bugs they were. Either that, or hurl himself from the roof and end it all. Conveniently, the air conditioner work people had left a ladder for him to climb.
Wow, they really did look like insignificant bugs from up here.
"Hey!" he screamed. "I'm giving my oral report up here!"
Their pleasingly shocked faces stared up at him. Mr. Thorpe, the teacher, looked like he was sending for help, as his pet student went scurrying off.
"Alberta, you need to come down from there!" he shouted, hands cupped around his mouth.
"My name's not Alberta!"
The entire class was now huddled beneath him. They looked worried. Good. The teacher was on his phone now, completely ignoring Al. Or calling the po!ice. Oh, God, not the police. He hadn't meant for this to get out of hand. He paced nervously at the edge of the roof, huddled over in anxiety.
One of the gamer boys pointed at him. "Oh, my God, she really is a sumo!"
"I'm not a she," Al cried. "I'm not a..."
This was going to be his best oral report. Melancholy filled his soul, as he now knew what he had to do.
"I'm a Camus Kaze!" He declared, as the divine wind rushed through his godlike hair.
And then he jumped, aiming himself right at the teacher.
It was too bad he missed.