Listen — Travis Coates was alive once and then he wasn’t.
Now he’s alive again.
Simple as that.
The in between part is still a little fuzzy, but he can tell you that, at some point or another, his head got chopped off and shoved into a freezer in Denver, Colorado. Five years later, it was reattached to some other guy’s body, and well, here he is. Despite all logic, he’s still 16 and everything and everyone around him has changed. That includes his bedroom, his parents, his best friend, and his girlfriend. Or maybe she’s not his girlfriend anymore? That’s a bit fuzzy too.
Looks like if the new Travis and the old Travis are ever going to find a way to exist together, then there are going to be a few more scars.
Oh well, you only live twice.
A PLACE LIKE HIGH SCHOOL
A PLACE LIKE HIGH SCHOOL
Going back to school was something I never thought I’d have to deal with. By the time I elected to be a science experiment in Denver, I’d been out for about nine months, including summer break. My teachers sent me assignments for a while, back in the January before I left. Some of them even put little Get well soon notes inside, but I didn’t really see the point of doing anything, and I guess that eventually became everyone else’s attitude because the assignments stopped and my parents quit asking me about them.
I never really liked school the first time around. I didn’t hate it. I wasn’t bullied or anything. I had plenty of friends and I got along with most of my teachers— the ones who weren’t Mrs. Lasetter, that is—and even though I wasn’t all that great at things like math, I studied enough to make okay grades. I just never liked being there. I used to lie in bed every school night I can remember and be filled with this massive dread that I had to wake up and do it all over again. If it weren’t for Cate and Kyle, I don’t think I’d have tried as hard as I did. I used to think about how easy it would’ve been to turn into one of those dropouts who has to get a shitty job somewhere around town and never grows up.
But that dread, that dislike, it had nothing on how I felt the morning of my fateful return to Springside High.
Of course, I’d never had to walk into school with photographers and news cameras lining the sidewalk out front either. It wasn’t enough that I was about to enter a school full of complete strangers, but I had to do it as the famous miracle boy everyone’s been seeing on TV.
“They can’t go inside,” Mom said to me. We were sitting in her car in the roundabout drop-off zone in front of the school and watching the dozens of reporters waiting for me to show up. There were curious students standing all around them, and I saw a few smiling for the cameras as they walked past.
“Shit,” I said.
“Travis.” Dad turned around from the passenger seat and looked at me. “Give them a few days and they won’t care anymore.”
“I know,” he said with confidence. “Just duck your head down, don’t say anything, and walk inside. If you don’t give them anything to use, they’ll go away.”
“Be boring,” Mom added, a smirk on her face.
It was loud. With the countless reporters yelling questions and the other kids looking on from their little huddled groups, it was such a chaotic and stressful scene. I was wearing one of the scarves Mom had bought me because it was cold enough and because I thought maybe she’d been right. I wasn’t ready for the kind of attention these people wanted to give me. The whole time I was burrowing through the crowd, all I could do was imagine a zoomed-in photograph of my neck on national television.
The school secretary couldn’t stop giving me that look, that “I can’t believe it’s really you that I’m talking to right now” look when she printed out my class schedule in the main office. I also caught her staring down at my neck. She wanted to notice an inconsistency in the skin tones, to gossip about the freak science-experiment kid who had just walked onto campus. Even though I was embarrassed and felt like I’d just run through a battlefield, I thought about lowering the scarf to give her a quick glimpse of it. It wasn’t going away, after all.
Before I could do that, though, Principal Carson ran in and put an arm around my shoulders. She smelled exactly the same as always, like Irish Spring soap.
“Travis Coates! What an outstanding kid!”
“Travis, what you’ve done. Your story, it’s just . . . it’s so inspiring for us all.”
Then Principal Carson was crying these little tears and wiping them away with the back of her left hand. Her fingernails were shiny red, and she was wearing a ring that looked to me like she didn’t even need this job. Maybe she’s for real, I thought. Maybe she loves kids that much.
“We should get a picture, no?” She perked up, still wiping tears and snorting as she breathed in.
“Really?” I asked. But I knew Principal Carson was for real when the secretary stood up and pointed her cell phone toward us.
Then Principal Carson waved her arms out to invite everyone standing around in the office—the staff, a few random students, and a PE teacher—to join us. Maybe they’d planned the whole thing because it didn’t take long before I was sandwiched between them and forcing a smile for the camera.
“I’m probably late for class,” I said, attempting a move for the door.
“I’ll walk you, sweetie,” Principal Carson said.
There was clapping when we stepped into Mrs. Lasetter’s geometry class. Even that battle-ax was standing behind her desk and smiling as kids started getting up to pat me on the back, shake my hand, and hold their phones up in front of us to snap quick photos. I was sweating now, nervous with all the eyes on me and all the attention. This was harder than I’d thought, and it made High School Round One seem so easy. Back then I could hide away and talk to the handful of people I chose and then go home. This was just getting ridiculous. I managed to say “Thanks” over their collective noise, and I took a seat in the front corner of the room. As soon as I sat down, I felt like everyone was looking at me, staring at my head and wondering if it were at all possible for it to fly
right off or roll down one of my arms. Principal Carson was still standing at the front of the room, and she held one hand up to signal for silence.
“Boys and girls, I hope you understand the privilege that has been bestowed upon you. You all get to witness one of the greatest miracles of modern science right here at Springside High. What an amazing day!”
And then more clapping and even a few cheers rang out from the students. I closed my eyes and clinched my fists while forcing a smile. I wasn’t prepared for this, and it was becoming pretty overwhelming. Then one kid from the back yelled, “NOGGIN!” like he was trying to start a group chant with it, but the whole room fell super quiet instead.
“Hatton!” Mrs. Lasetter barked. “Apologize! Now!”
I turned around to see a skinny kid with glasses and blond, almost white hair slumping down in his desk. He looked at me with this sincere regret on his face.
“No.” I stood up. “It’s fine. I like it.”
“You like what?” Lasetter asked. She’d always hated me, and I could already see it coming back. I thought about succumbing to that look she gave me, the one that had always made even the most defiant students lower their heads in shame. But I was back, and even though
I just wanted to run away and hide, defying her was the best moment of my new life.
“Noggin. It has a nice ring to it.”
“He was being rude.”
“But I liked it. What’s your name again? Hatton?”
He perked up and nodded his head. He was smiling now but still looking over at Lasetter with a cautious expression, unsure if he’d be punished for going along with me.
“I always wanted a nickname. Thanks.”
“How do you like that, kids? What a fantastic attitude this young man has! And after all he’s been through!”
Principal Carson clasped her hands together and sighed deeply.
“Speech!” one kid shouted from the back of the room.
I looked up at Mrs. Lasetter, and she was clenching her jaw so hard she’d have to take an aspirin later.
“SPEECH! SPEECH! SPEECH!” they all started shouting.
Then Principal Carson looked at me, looked right down at me and into my eyes, and I knew I had to do it. As much as I just wanted to be boring, like Mom said, I knew they weren’t going to let me. I
mean, it couldn’t be that bad, right? So I stood up, waited for them all to settle down, wiped sweat from my forehead with the back of one arm, and spoke.
“It’s good to be back here,” I began. “It seems like just yesterday I was walking these halls, even though it was with a different set of legs and all.”
And they laughed. Thank God they laughed. There were even a few “awesome”s whispered from the back.
“I just hope I haven’t forgotten everything I learned five years ago. It would be a shame if I can’t keep ahead.”
Nothing. Not one murmur of a chuckle.
“Get it?” I asked. “Ahead?” I pointed to my skull.
They laughed again, even harder this time. And it could’ve been that they just didn’t know what else to do, but it didn’t matter. I realized, in that moment, that maybe I could do this. I could be this new person. Lawrence Ramsey had done it. Hell, I saw him in a luxury car commercial just the day before. He was cashing in on this whole “Miracle of Modern Science” gig, and he’d only been conscious for a few months longer than I had.
But as comfortable as it felt right at first, while they were laughing and looking at me with this strange excitement, it still wasn’t right. It only took me a few seconds to snap out of it and remember that the last time I was in that classroom, I’d just been diagnosed with a deadly illness and my best friend had been sitting right beside me.
After I sat back down and Mrs. Lasetter continued writing notes on the board for a while, the bell rang to dismiss class, and my new fellow students lined up to shake my hand on the way out. Principal Carson had stepped back in and stood proudly beside me, even once leaning down and whispering into my ear something I’ll never forget.
“I’ve never seen that woman get so mad. Well done, young man.”
The last kid in line was Hatton, who opted for a high five in place of a handshake and said I was already the coolest guy he’d ever met.
“I was supposed to be boring today,” I said.
“No way, man. Noggin,” he said proudly. “Superstar.”
A Note from the Author
This selection is Travis' first day back at school. More importantly, it's the first time we meet Hatton, who actually becomes a very big part of the story---but, originally, I intended to only have Hatton in this one scene. Problem was, I liked him so much that I had to expand his character.