Archive for the young adult Category

JUST PLAIN WEIRD PREVIEW

Posted in Novel excerpts, Uncategorized, young adult, Young Adult on September 23, 2016 by tomupton33

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https://read.amazon.com/kp/card?asin=B001G0OCDE&preview=inline&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_9Zx5xbSQK1596&amp

Young love has never been this complicated.

Travis MacDuff is an ordinary teenager. His only concern is making his school’s football team, until he meets his new neighbor, a peculiar girl who leads him on a bizarre journey that threatens their lives as well as all life on the planet.

Just Plain Weird is a story about destiny and the triumph of young love over everything.

 

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“Cold, Cold Water”

Posted in short stories, young adult on September 24, 2009 by tomupton33

The old man was a creepy feature in our house that summer. Each morning, after breakfast, my mother would wheel him out onto the landing outside our kitchen door, and there he remained for most of the day.

His eyes were sunk deep into their sockets. He was nearly blind; supposedly he could see only shadows. His nose was bony and hawkish, jutting out from a face that was just a mass of wrinkles. His pale skin appeared paler under the early morning sun, and no matter how warm it was, a heavy afghan lay across his lap and over the arms of his wheelchair. His lips were always parted, and sometimes you could catch a glimpse of his two remaining front teeth. The only time he ever spoke now was to ask for water. “Cold, cold water,” he rasped softly whenever he was thirsty. It never sounded like a request, but an observation, as though he was seeing in his mind some mountain stream whose crystal clear water was babbling through a formation of rocks. He would repeat the words at almost exactly intervals, never certain anybody was close enough to hear.

I was fourteen then, and every time I had to pass him to enter through the kitchen door, my scrotum shrunk slightly, as if the temperature on the landing was hovering just above zero. “Cold, cold water.” His eyelids drooped a bit, so you could see only a sliver of green and white. I knew he couldn’t see me, but the way his eyes appeared made me feel that he wasn’t blind, but that I was invisible.

That was the summer my brother, Ricky, decided to kill the Greek. I never for a moment believed he would actually do it. He had changed quite a bit in the last year; he had developed opinions– on just about everything, it seemed– started to pass judgment on everything and everybody. But he had not changed that much. So when he told me his plans, I was sure that it was all talk.

We sat on out on the back stairs of our house. He was sitting on one of the higher stairs, as though that somehow reflected that he was older than me and therefore ought to be elevated. On the landing the old man loomed over us, a silent sentinel.

“Why would you want to kill him anyway?” I asked.

He took a moment to answer. He looked over the railing at our small backyard, which, no matter how our mother tried to dress up with annuals each year, still managed to appear sad and pitiful.

“It’s just the way it has to be,” he said. “There’s an order to things, and the Greek is out of order.”

I considered this, but it just didn’t make any sense to me. The Greek had bought the neighborhood candy store last year. It was true that he was not as likeable as Mr. Bellini, the old owner who had dispensed candy to the kids and milk and bread to their parents for about a hundred years. He always seemed sullen, walking around in a dirty t-shirt. His black hair was receding and slicked back, and his dark eyes were somewhat protuberant, as though he was always on the verge of losing his temper. He was not the nicest human being, but I couldn’t see that he was worthy of being killed, and I told Ricky as much.

“He beats his wife and daughter, you know,” he said curtly.

“Oh, his daughter…” I said knowingly. Ricky had had a crush on the Greek’s daughter, Lori, since he first laid eyes on her. I couldn’t blame him, really; she was quite pretty, with long wavy dark hair and the kind of face you’d see on a cameo– and her body wasn’t bad, either. For some reason, though, Ricky, lately, had lost interest in her.

“Don’t give me ‘Oh, her daughter’ like you know everything,” he chided me. “She’s aside from the point.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah,” he said in a brooding tone.

“You don’t like her anymore?”

“I like her just fine,” he said, but the way he said it led me to believe that what he was saying wasn’t quite the truth.

“But you’re not interested in her anymore,” I pointed out.

“No.”

“Then you don’t mind if I took a try at her.”

“Yeah, I mind,” he snapped.

“What?”

“You just stay away from her.”

“Why?”

“Just stay away from her– that’s all,” he said. He stared over the railing again. In the yard birds were swooping down, landing in the lawn and pecking at the grass seed our mother had spread yesterday. It was no wonder why the lawn always had the scruffy look, with tiny bare spots here and there. You just couldn’t put down enough grass seed– there were just too many birds. On the landing the old man started to murmur, “Cold, cold water,” but neither one of us took much notice.

“You know I nearly got her,” Ricky said in a mischievous way.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” he swore.

“What happened?”

A look of disdain passed over his face. “I’m not sure I should say.”

“Well, I’m not going to beg you,” I told him.

“Cold, cold water,” came from the landing above.

Ricky glanced up at the old man, and seemed disgusted.

“We were alone in the Greek’s apartment, right above the store while the Greek was working,” he said.

“And, what, the Greek caught you trying to do his daughter? That why you want to kill him?”

Ricky snorted. “You don’t know nothing,” he said, and sounded just the way adults sound when they’re talking to kids sometimes. “No, he didn’t catch anything.”

“Then what happened?” I asked.

“I’ll tell you, if you just shut up and let me tell you.”

“All right, all right,” I said.

“She started taking off her clothes,” he said slowly, too slowly.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, and her body was– perfect– I mean, perfect. You know? She got down to her underwear and then she takes me into her bedroom. So I’m getting excited, you know, like we were really going to do it and somehow that seemed so unreal– like it was a dream. We were going to do it while the Greek was down stairs, right under us, putting price tags on the canned food. So I start getting undressed. She took off his panties, and that was that– I’ll tell you,” he said with great disdain. “She had this– I never seen anything like it. You know, it wasn’t anything like the girls you’d see in the Playboys dad keeps hidden from mom in the back of the closet.” He leaned down closer, and lowered his voice, as though afraid the old man on the landing might hear. “She had this bush– it wasn’t a bush; it was the whole freaking forest, you know. It was totally gross. The hair went almost up to her navel– I’m not kidding. Well, I just couldn’t deal with that. I could never be that horny– no way. It was disgusting. I was totally pissed. It could have been perfect, but she ruined it.” He shook his head, as if he still couldn’t believe it. “You know, I went through a lot of trouble to talk her out of her clothes. You’d think she’d have the decency not to show me something like that, you know. I mean, her old man sells razor blades downstairs. How much trouble would it have been– you know?”

I was confused. “So that’s why you want to kill the Greek?”

“No, no, no, I told you she was aside from the point. I was just telling you what happened, because you asked. Can’t you remember anything?”

“Oh,” I said. “Then why do you want to kill him?”

“Cold, cold water…”

Ricky paused to look up at the look up at the old man.

“Why is he living with us, again?”

“I guess nobody else would take him. Grandma and grandpa are getting too old to take care of him anymore.”

“So we get stuck with him?”

“I guess.”

“See, that’s what I mean about people being out of order. Nobody ought to live that long. A person’s great-grandfather ought to be underground somewhere– not put out on the landing ever day, like… like a potted plant or something. The same thing with the Greek; he’s out of order. Old Mr. Bellini was fine; he really liked the kids. The Greek just pretends. He actually hates the kids. He just takes their money– that’s all. He doesn’t care. He gloms money, and beats his wife and daughter. He doesn’t fit.”

“A lot of people like him,” I pointed out.

“A lot of people have eyes but how many of them see? It’s funny. When you’re a little kid, you accept everything you see, whether it’s good or bad. But you get to a point where you see that some things just aren’t right and that something ought to be done about it. So, yeah, the Greek should die. He should die and his wife should get everything. That would restore order–”

“Cold, cold water–”

Ricky finally lost it. He jumped to his feet, and bellowed toward the kitchen window.

“Ma! Ma! Get out here and water your plant, will you please?”

A moment later, our mother walked out onto the landing with a glass of water. She gave Ricky a sour look– I could hardly blame her– and then she held the glass up to the old man’s wrinkled lips. He slurped the water, which started to run off at the corners of his mouth, and dripped down onto the afghan. When the glass was empty, our mother paused to give Ricky another look of disapproval before going back into the kitchen.

He became moody, then– it seemed he was always getting moody these days. He didn’t say anything more about the Greek.

I wondered why he thought he had to do something about the Greek. I was sure other people saw things that they didn’t think were right, but few people ever did anything about it.

I was sure that it was all just talk, and remained convinced of that, until he actually got a gun.

************

He showed it to me only once. It was an automatic– a 9mm– and the handle and barrel were covered with tiny scratches, as though it had been dropped many times. After he showed it to me, he hid it some where in his bedroom. After that, I didn’t have to see it again; it was enough to know that it was in the house.

I should have told my parents then, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. I really still didn’t think he would go through with it. His reasoning for wanting to shoot the Greek didn’t seem sound to me, and I was sure that he would see that, too, and forget about the whole thing. So I just kept my mouth shut.

A few days passed, and nothing happened, and then a few weeks, and still nothing happened. Ricky never said another word about the Greek, and I knew that I had been right– he wasn’t going to do anything, after all.

One day my mother took the old man down the stairs, so that he could spend the day on the small patio in the yard. She wheeled him out onto the landing, and then awkwardly turned the wheelchair so that it faced the stairs. She tipped the chair back slightly, which was easily because the old man was so light, and then slowly lowered the chair down the stairs. Every time the large, rubber rimmed wheels hit a stair, there was a low thump and the wood of the stair would creak, as though it was some kind of warning that something unnatural was occurring. She got him out to the patio, and arranged the wheelchair so that it was facing the yard. She seemed irrationally particular about how the wheelchair was positioned, as though she was unaware the old man was blind and was concerned about him having a good view of her flower garden. At lunchtime, she brought him a bowl of apple sauce and spooned it into his mouth. Whenever some of the apple sauce escaped his mouth and slid down his chin, which was often, she scrape it off it the spoon and fed it to him. After she had finished she retreated to the house, and settled herself in the living room to watch soap operas, as she did every day.

Later, with my father home from work, we all sat down at the kitchen table to have dinner. This was always an oddly quiet time for us; nobody ever spoke, and all you could hear was the soft scraping of folks on our plates. Nobody much looked at each other, either, but I noticed, now and then, my parents pause and frown slightly, as if wondering whether all the windows were closed because it had started raining pretty hard outside. All of a sudden my mother shot up from her chair and said something. It came out garbled, but sounded like “Oh, my God!” She raced toward the back door, and I followed her.

The old man was still sitting out on the patio. He was soaking wet by now. His head– so remindful of a baby bird’s, for some reason– was slightly tilted up toward the gray sky as the rain struck his face. His mouth was slightly opened as though he was trying to catch the raindrops.

My mother tugged him back up the stairs. As she wheeled him through the kitchen, I could hear him murmur, “Cold, cold water.” It was hard to tell if he was thirsty or complaining about the rain.

“I can’t do this anymore,” my mother said in dismay.

“He belongs in a nursing home,” my father said, chewing his food, having never left the table.

My mother took the old man into the small bedroom to change his wet clothes, still moaning that she couldn’t take it anymore.

After all the ruckus had died down, I sat down to finish eating. Ricky looked at me. Like our father, he had not left his seat. He said one word: “Soon.”

Ricky was spending a lot of time in his room. There were some days I didn’t even see him. I could hear music playing from his stereo, and sometimes he was watching the small black-and-white television that was atop his dresser. It seemed unhealthy. He barely ever went outside. During previous summers he would seldom be at home; he would go to the park to get into a pick-out baseball game, or hang around the street corner with friends, or just go for a walk– anything to be outside. Now he was content to be holed up in his room, with the door always shut. I could picture him lying there on his unmade bed. He never made his bed. His room was always a mess, with dirty clothes strewn on the floor. Once, my mother swore, she found a pair of sweat socks under his bed that were nearly as stiff as a board, they were so dirty. Sometimes, I could hear the springs of his bed squeaking, and I know he was doing push-ups; he always did push-ups off the floor with his feet atop his bed, lowering his face toward the dirty laundry. Other times, there was no sound at all. Then I’d wonder what he was doing. Was he sleeping or did he have the gun out of its hiding place, looking it over, removing and replacing the clip, thinking about his plan? I could never bring myself to knock on his door. To him that seemed to be the ultimate affront. If somebody did that, he would start screaming at them through the door– even if it was my father, who didn’t like that kind of disrespect and wasn’t shy about telling him that.

One evening I noticed his bedroom door was opened. His dirty clothes almost spilled out into the living room. He was nowhere in the house. My mother told me he’d gone for a walk. I felt like searching the room to see if he’d taken the gun with him. But I wouldn’t have known where to start; his room was such a mess, it might take hours for me to determine if the gun was there.

When I looked at the kitchen clock and saw the time, I knew he had the gun with him. It was almost seven o’clock, the time the Greek closed up for the night. I was struck with the buzzy feeling people get when confronted with something otherworldly. He was actually going to do it. It seemed so unreal, but I knew it was true.

The next day the news was all over the neighbor. Even people who didn’t like the Greek were horrified that he’d been shot dead while closing up the store. Nobody saw who shot the Greek, but there were police cars cruising throughout the area all day long just the same.

The old man sat in his wheelchair in the living room all that day. My mother was afraid that he would catch a chill and develop pneumonia if she put him outside. She fed him his lunch, and then took the car to the store to buy groceries.

I sat on the sofa, and watched cable shows. I tried my best to ignore the old man, but sometimes I couldn’t help looking at him. His sightless eyes seemed to be staring at me. I couldn’t concentrate on what was on the television. I kept wondering what the old man knew, how much he heard and understood– if anything. I was sure he didn’t know that the Greek was dead and that his great-grandson had killed him and that his other great-grandson had known that he was going to do it but didn’t do or say anything to stop him. Beyond that, the old man could have been thinking anything, or nothing.

Ricky wandered out of his room just then. It was almost noon– he was sleeping later every day, it seemed. He was wearing sleeveless shirt that showed off his well-muscles shoulders. His hands were jammed into the pockets of his pants, and he seemed to be in one of his broody moods. He looked at me briefly, and then turned to stare at the old man.

“Somebody ought to put a pillow over his face, really,” Ricky said.

I must have given him a look of disapproval– either that or a look of panic at the idea he might actually do it. I just didn’t know what to expect from him anymore.

He shrugged his thick shoulders. “There’s definitely a quality of life issue here.”

“Don’t even,” I said, disgusted. I felt that he had betrayed a trust by actually killing the Greek. He knew I hadn’t believed he’d do it, and when he actually did do it, he made me his accomplice. I couldn’t say anything now, and he knew that– he wasn’t stupid. I didn’t much like the feeling of being put in that situation.

“The guy had it coming,” he said, as if reading my mind. “Don’t sweat it.”

“I didn’t have anything against the guy,” I said glumly.

“Only because you’re ignorant. You don’t see things right.”

“Yeah, he was out of order, but now he isn‘t, huh? I think he just told you to stay away from his daughter– that’s all.”

He snorted. “Think what you want. I explained to you how things were. I can’t do anything if you don’t understand. Some people are just out of line. Nobody does anything about it, and that’s what causes the world to go wrong. You think it’s right for that old man to still be living and breathing? What’s the point of it?”

“Cold, cold water,” the old man croaked just then.

Ricky smirked. “You hear that?” he said to me, then turned to the old man. “Dry up and die, you old fart.”

“Cold, cold water,” the old man repeated.

Ricky gave me a crooked look.

“Don’t,” I warned him.

“Old people go to sleep, and never wake up. It happens. It’s normal,” he said, and seemed to enjoy my discomfort.

“What happened to you?” I asked sincerely, and would regret even asking.

He shrugged. “I started to understand things, I guess. You know, they try to teach you right from wrong, but they don’t really want you to know. They want to keep you stupid. And you know why? Because they don’t want you to know that half the things they do are wrong. Like last year, when I had to go to summer school. Remember? They were all concerned about my falling behind, and, oh, they were going to help, and they were going to take care of me. Yeah, right. Then when you go, they treat you like you’re stupid. They even call you stupid. What?– is that supposed to help? They just don’t know what they do to kids. Not me, of course– I understand what’s going on; I see their faults. But you take your average kid. He’s trusting and all, and listens to everything he’s told, and believes it, and they end up making him feel he’s not even good enough to go to school. It’s not worth their precious efforts. That’s what they do, every one of those teachers who teach during the summer at school. They tell the parents one thing, and then turn round and treat their kids a whole different way– as though they’re burdens the teachers have to endure. Well, that’s what they get paid for, right? It’s their job. But they can’t just do it; they have to mess with peoples’ minds. I wonder how many kids they ruin every summer, how many kids never get to go where they’re meant to go, because they’ve been discouraged, because they’ve been led to believe they’re hopeless. It’s not right, I’m telling you, it’s not right. If I walked into that school tomorrow morning I shot every one of them in the head, I’d be doing everybody a big favor.”

Long before he finished, I had begun to get a sick feeling in my gut. It wasn’t that he was getting excited as he spoke; he showed no passion at all, in fact, but just spoke in a steady, calm drone. That was the creepiest thing about it, really, the way he said the words as though he was reading off the batting averages of his favorite baseball players.

I knew he meant every word he said. The threat was real. He’d already killed the Greek. He was like a tame animal that tastes blood for the first time, and now he was ruined forever. Every time he passed judgment on somebody now, it would not be enough; he would actually want to do something about it. It was madness. I couldn’t understand how this had happened to him, how he’d had turned into himself and got so twisted up. He wasn’t even like my brother anymore, but some stranger that had invaded the house.

Before he walked back into his room, and shut out the rest of the world, he paused to look at the old man.

“You’re on the list, too, Methuselah,” he said coolly, and then closed the door.

I listened to the hush in the house, then, and wondered what to do.

“Cold, cold water,” I heard the old man say. At the moment they seemed like the saddest words in the world. For a change, I went to the kitchen to get him a glass.

**********

During the following few days, Ricky didn’t mention anything about the school or the teachers or about shooting anybody. He seemed pretty cheery, actually, and whether or nor it was all an act; I had no doubts that he was still dwelling on some new plan.
At night I had dreams about him. I couldn’t rightfully call them nightmares, because they lacked the terror that true nightmares evoked in me. The content of the dreams were disturbing enough, but it presented itself in such a matter-of-fact way that I barely found the dreams disturbing. In one of the dreams Ricky had been wounded by the cops. He was holed up in one of the abandoned factories that were plentiful in our lower-middle class neighborhood. It was bringing him food in a large open room that had once been filled with machinery used in the manufacturing of bicycle parts. Everything appeared in black and white. He was wearing a sleeveless white tee shirt and the large splotch of blood that showed at the side of his stomach appeared in dark gray and not red. The beat-up 9mm poked out from the top of his jeans. He paced around slowly, but not as though in pain, eating a tuna salad sandwich that looked dull and tasteless. Between bits, he droned on how the world was filled with wrong that he planned to make right. He would give his life if he must. He painted himself as some heroic figure on a noble quest. Then, just as the last crumbs fell from his lips, he pulled the 9mm from the front of his pants, aimed at me, and fired. The 9mm bucked in his hand, but made no noise. That was when I’d wake up. I wouldn’t be soaked in sweat. I wouldn’t feel fear or even dread. I wouldn’t feel anything, in fact, as though it all had been of little importance. Maybe I felt this way, I thought, because it all seemed so unreal to me. Maybe Ricky had been right to suggest that I was blind to things that he could see. I suspected I would be better off to go through life so unenlightened.

Fading Away

Posted in short stories, young adult on July 9, 2009 by tomupton33

 

  

 

 

My cousin Coralee started it all.

This was during my sophomore year, when Coralee still lived down the street from us and I still had to endure her presence in school each day. She really could be quite annoying.

She was always jumping into something or other. First, when she was younger, it was ballet. Then it was martial arts. Then rock collecting…. No sooner did she get involved in some interest or hobby than she grew bored and jumped to something new. I often suspected she had the attention span of a fruit fly.

Starting sophomore year, she was just recovering from her interest in skateboarding, when she became obsessed with nutrition and fitness.

I was sitting with her in the lunchroom one day, and it was poof, like magic, she was suddenly a health nut. All she had in front of her was a garden salad, with no dressing, and a carton of skim milk, and the attitude that anybody who ate anything more than that was violating the sacred temple of their body.

“What’s that supposed to be?” I asked her.

“My lunch?”

“Yeah, is that what that is?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Where’s the pizza?” I asked.

“No pizza.”

“There’s always pizza.”

“Not anymore,” she said.

“No? What happened?”

“I found out what was in it,” she said. “I found out what was in a lot of things.”

She ate her salad. I ate my enchiladas. I waiting for it, knowing it would come, and sure enough it did.

“You wanna know what’s in those enchiladas?” she asked.

I thought about it for a microsecond, before I said, “No.”

She stared at me, her eyes almost begging me to let her tell me.

“I don’t want to know,” I said, and continued eating.

Finally she could hold it back. She blurted out, “MGA.”

“What?”

“MGA.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That’s what’s in your enchiladas.”

“Did I tell you I didn’t want to know?”

“Oh, I thought you were just saying that, but secretly you really wanted to know.”

“No,” I said carefully, as though talking to a three-year-old, which wasn’t far from the truth, “when I say I don’t want to know something I always mean I don’t want to know something.”

“Well, I just had to tell you,” she said.

“No, you did not.”

“Yeah, I did,” she insisted. “It was just too important. It was critical. If you were about to step on a land mine and blow yourself into bloody little bits, I’d have to warn you. I mean, I could never just sit there and say nothing.”

“What land mine?” I asked.

“That enchilada is like a land mine.”

“It is?”

“Sure.”

I paused to look at my enchilada, and said, “It doesn’t look like a land mine.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Coralee I almost never do know what you mean. Can I please just eat my lunch?”

“No, no, you can’t,” she said, getting all pushy now. “They put MGA in so it tastes better. My point is, you really don’t know what it tastes like, and the MGA is really bad for you.”

“I don’t feel bad,” I said.

She rolled her eyes, as though she were the one talking to a moron and not the other way around. “Not now. But if you keep eating stuff with MGA in it– you know, in the long run– well, it’s just not good for you.”

“Yeah?”

“Lisa, trust me on this. I did the research.”

I eyed my enchilada, maybe just a bit suspicious now.

“Why? What could happen?”

“Well…” she started, and got flustered. It was obvious that she didn’t have a clue. “Well, nothing good.”

“For example.”

“I don’t know. That’s the scariest part; nobody knows for sure what could happen. Maybe your uterus will drop out one day. Who knows?”

“What happens to guys, then?” I asked.

“I’m just saying, why take a chance,” she said, getting irritated. “Hey, if you wanna eat the junk, go ahead– what do I care?”

She tried hard to ignore me, then, but I caught her taking sneaky looks at me now and then.

After she finished her salad, she started digging through her purse. She pulled out a small clear plastic pouch that was filled with different pills.

I lunged across the table, trying to cover the tiny pouch with my hand before anybody could see it.

She started at me, wide-eyed with shock.

“What?” she said.

“What are those?”

“Vitamins,” she said. “What do they look like?”

“They look like a whole mess of pills you shouldn’t be carrying around in school.”

“They’re just vitamins,” she scoffed, shoving my hand away. “Nobody can say anything about my taking vitamins.”

I looked around the lunchroom. Everybody was too busy eating or talking or playing with their cubes of green jello to notice Coralee. Really that was one of the good things about her: she was easily over-looked. She could probably strip naked and run up and down the lunch line and hardly anybody would realize what was happening.

Still I couldn’t help being unnerved.

“Look,” she said, and dug out a pill. “This is B-complex. It’s good for infections and your skin.” She set it on the tabletop and dug out another pill. “Vitamin C– good for colds… Vitamin D– good for bones….”

“You got anything that’s good for insanity, because I think you need to pop a few of those. What that one there?” I asked, fascinated because one of the pills was incredibly large. “That humongous white,” I said, pointing at it.

“Amino Acids,” she said.

“You actually swallow that?”

“Yeah, sure, it’ll make me feel better.”

“Not if it gets caught in your throat, I won’t.”

I watched in amazement, as she swallowed the pills one by one.

“And those make you feel better?” I asked.

“Well, not yet, but they will,” she said. “I’m still waiting for the accumulative effect. You wanna try some?” she asked eagerly, again digging to the bottom of her purse.

“Uh, no,” I said.

“It’s no problem. I always have extras.”

“That’s not the point,” I said. The point was that I never involved myself in any of Coralee’s interests, not after the last time. She’d been all enthused about hiking, and talked me into going with her once. It had seemed safe enough, but I ended up stepping in a gopher hole and breaking my ankle. Of course, it wasn’t really her fault, but I’d always taken the experience as a warning. “I just hate taking pills,” I lied, hoping she would accept the lame excuse.

But she just ignored me, as usual, and slid a packet of vitamins at me.

Before I could get her to take them back, she grabbed her lunch tray, muttered something about having to go somewhere before her next class, and left me sitting there, with a small extremely suspicious little baggie in front of me. I was forced to put it in my pocket before anybody noticed and I had to explain everything about how they were just vitamins, vitamins I had never wanted, and how my cousin Coralee was an incredible airhead who, for the most part, was harmless. I doubted that I could make it all sound very convincing.

 

 

So, yeah, in the end, I took the vitamins. I was even a little proud that I somehow managed to swallow the gynormous amino acid pill without choking to death on it.

The whole vitamin experience left me feeling rather stupid, though.

I took the pills after I got home that day. I’d completely forget I had them in the pocket of my jeans, when I pulled them out, I almost threw them out. But I was afraid my parents might discover them, and end of thinking that one of their kids was a turning into a pill-popping degenerate. Also, I was somewhat curious. Would these things actually make me feel better? And how? I really didn’t think I needed them. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the way I felt normally. Still I wondered.

I figured it couldn’t do any harm, so I took them.

And absolutely nothing happened.

I waited for a while. I couldn’t say exactly what I expected, but I didn’t feel any different.

So I did my homework, after which I paused for a long moment to try to detect some subtle change in my physical well-being. But nothing.

For the rest of the day, until I finally went to bed, I stopped to assess myself, only to determine that everything was normal.

I fell asleep feeling as stupid as I had ever felt in my life.

 

 

The next day, Fate itself seemed to be conspiring with Coralee against me.

I met her as I did every day outside the lunchroom.

As we took our places at the end of the lunch line, I told her straight out, “Look, I don’t want to hear anything about vitamins today, okay?”

“Why, what happened?” she asked.

“Nothing– unless you count me waking up in the middle of the night because I’m belching these nasty belches that smell like rotten eggs.”

“That’s from the B-complex,” she said.

“I don’t care what it’s from. Just– just not a word about vitamins.”

She seemed vaguely hurt, and nodded meekly.

As we started to slide our lunch trays down the stainless steel bars before the lunch counter, Coralee said, “I read somewhere that certain imbalances can cause a person to be grumpy.”

“Yeah,” I snarled, “and so can having an idiot for a cousin.”

I peered through the glass of the counter to see what was being served today. We always had the choice of three entrees. The first large stainless steel tub in the steam table contained some kind of creamy chicken casserole dish that look a lot like vomit. The next tub… a creamy beef dish that looked like vomit. The third tub… charred pieces of some type of meat that actually made the stuff in the first two tubs look good.

I paused for too long as I tried to figure with entrée looked the least gross, because somebody down the line started carping about the detail– some hungry person who didn’t have a clue they were about to lose their appetite.

“That’s all you have?” I asked the white-clad woman behind the counter.

She shrugged and nodded as though she couldn’t care less.

“Pass,” I mumbled, and continued down the line.

“First sensible choice you’ve made,” Coralee said.

“Shut up,” I told her, and grabbed a salad, a piece of corn bread, and a cube of green jello that probably would have bounced like a rubber ball if I dropped it.

I sat across from her at our usual table, and ate my salad. Everything I looked up at her, she appeared satisfied, which I found very annoying.

“Don’t say a word,” I warned her.

“Hey, I didn’t say anything,” she said.

“Keep it that way.”

But in the end she couldn’t. “It’s not a bad thing, you know. Did you really wanna eat any of that– stuff?”

“What was it, anyway?” I had to ask.

“It’s the end of the month. Probably whatever they had left over. No doubt saturated with MGA.”

“Hey, you know, I checked on that,” I said. “The school district forbids the use of MGA in school meals.”

“You think they know?” she asked. “You just don’t understand how the world works.”

“Okay, tell me– tell me how you think the world works.”

“You really wanna know?”

“You’re going to tell me anyway, no matter what I want. So, go ahead, get it over with.”

“Well,” she said, and leaned forward as though about to tell me some dark secret. “The school district gives a contract to a company to provide all the meals. It’s all business. The district doesn’t have actual control over what goes into the food– the company does.”

“And they’re the ones breaking the rules, and putting MGA in all the meals?”

“Sure, so everything tastes better,” Coralee said. “If everything tasted as bad as it looked, nobody would eat anything, and the company would lose its contract.”

“And you know this how?”

“It’s all common sense,” she said. “It’s all about money and cutting cost. Of course the food is going to be bad; the contract went to the lowest bidder.”

For once I though Coralee might actually have a point.

“Believe me,” she went on. “You’re better off with a salad. There’s no reason to put anything in salads, because nobody’s expecting anybody to like them anyway.”

I thought I might be losing my mind, because what she was saying actually seemed to make sense to me.

“Besides,” she said, in an off hand way, “you could stand to lose a few pounds.”

“Huh?” I wasn’t offended; I was genuinely surprised at her remark. My weight wasn’t something I thought about much.

“I’m not saying your fat– exactly,” she said. “But you’re not slim, either.”

“ ‘Slim’ doesn’t run on my side of the family, if you haven’t noticed,” I said stiffly. Every one in my immediate family was not slender. My older brother was stocky, my younger two sisters with chubby, and my parents were– well, I had to admit they were downright fat. I always liked to think of myself as a little chucky, not horribly so, just an little extra weight that really didn’t matter; after all, guys still looked at me in an interested kind of way– well, some guys, anyway.

“How much do you weight?” Coralee asked. She had always been pole thin.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I never weight myself.”

She looked at me as though she couldn’t believe it. “Never?”

“Mom threw out our scale. I get weight at the doctor’s.”

“The same doctor who probably told you it all runs in the family, and you can’t do anything about it.”

“No, he never said that– oh, he might have said that, too.”

“What else did he say?”

“He told me, maybe, if I drink more water.”

“More water!” she snorted. “Just like a doctor. You know what doctors know about nutrition?”

“No.”

She made a circle with her thumb and finger. “That much– zero, nada. They don’t even teach it in medical school. And, by the way, when a doctor says anything is because of genetics, that means he doesn’t know the real reason.”

“Really?”

“Really,” she promised. “Doctors aren’t as smart as they lead everybody to believe. If they were, nobody would ever get sick. Why do you think they call it a ‘medical practice.’? Doctors practice medicine. They never perform medicine.”

“Yeah,” I said with awe, realizing she was absolutely right.

“How much do you think you weigh?”

“One twenty…five…maybe.”

“And you’re what?– five foot three?” She shook her head. “Too much. And you have to fix that now. If you wait, it’ll just get worse. One day you’ll have to butter your hips to fit through doorways.”

That was a horrifying thought, and in that instant, before I even realized it, I committed myself to one of Coralee’s interests. I promised myself that I would eat better, that I would exercise, and that I would drink more water. It would all be so simple, and how could it ever be a bad thing?

 

 

Two weeks later:

I was always tired, from exercising.

I was always hungry, from not eating enough.

I was always running to the bathroom, from all the water I was drinking.

And as far as I could tell, I hadn’t lost a single ounce of weight.

 

“Well, you know, it might take a little longer,” Coralee suggested.

“I don’t that I have much time,” I said. “Today I fell asleep during an English test, and last week I nearly got run down by a truck while I was jogging. You know, it was a lt safer when I didn’t care what I weighed.’

But Coralee wasn’t listening. She seemed lost in though, as we sat at the lunch table.

“I wonder if you have an inhibited metabolism,” she said.

“Is that something I’m likely to have?” I asked.

“I read somewhere that some people are overweight because they don’t eat enough.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, really.”

“So I can eat again?”

“Well, I wouldn’t pig out. Just eat a lot more vegetables. See what happens.”

“With my luck, I still wont lose weight, and I’ll start looking like the Green Giant.”

 

But it turned out to be good advice. As soon as I started stuffing my face with vegetables, my weight started to ease down. I had discovered I actually weighed 142 pounds– much higher than I had believed– but within a month I was down to 125. Everything from my waist down slimmed out so much I needed new jeans. And I did feel better, which was the main reason I’d started to watch my diet.

It was all good.

Of course, my parents were a bit mystified. They weren’t used to some one in our house losing weight. But they figured that my new, healthy life-style agreed with me, and that it was for the better.

Coralee, by now, didn’t even care much. Like her previous interests, nutrition and fitness had already given way to a new hobby, rock-climbing.

“We’re in Illinois,” I pointed out to her one day at lunch. “We’re do you go rock climbing in Illinois?– it’s all flat.”

“You’d be surprised,” she said, and rattled off about a dozen nearby locations, before wolfing down a couple beef tacos and a non-diet soda.

“What happened to the nutrition thing?” I asked.

“Didn’t work for me,” she said, chewing her food. “I’m naturally skinny, anyway. But you– wow! Guys are actually looking at you.”

“Guys looked at me before,” I said, somewhat defensive.

“Yeah, the guys nobody wants. Now it’s, like, the hot guys are looking.”

“Go on,” I scoffed.

“No, really, girl. Just keep up whatever you’re doing– seriously. By spring, you’re gonna be smoking. You should get on of those teeny bikinis and started going to the tanning salon. You’re gonna have guys drooling over you.”

“Please, that’s not why I started this,” I said. “I just wanted to feel better, really.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll feel a lot better with a bunch a guy chasing you around.”

I found the thought embarrassing, but kind of nice, too. Everybody wants to be wanted, maybe that more than anything else in life.

“Actually,” I said, “I was thinking, maybe, of going out for a team.”

She stopped eating and stared at me.

“A team?” she said dully. “You’re kidding.”

“Maybe soccer or volleyball or maybe even cross-country. I kind of like running. It makes me feel good.”

“You’re sick, you know that,” she said. “I send you on the path to gain these new powers, and you’re gonna waste them on sports? You don’t even care about the guys and whether your favorite cousin picks up your leftovers? That’s gratitude for you,” she said, and stood and grabbed her tray. Before she left, she said, “You know, I don’t even know you.”

I couldn’t believe that she was getting all snarky on me. She was actually mad at me. What was with that? It was bizarre. She never got mad at me.

Well, let her be mad, then, I figured. It didn’t make any sense, anyway; she’d been the one who encouraged me. What did she have to be mad about?

 

Over the following weeks, my weight slowly decreased. As I physically faded away, so did my old life, only to be replaced by a strange new life that I could never feel was really mine.

Half the time when I awoke in the morning, I didn’t feel like myself, the good old Lisa Beaumont, but some stranger into whose skin I had somehow slipped.

Coralee avoided me like the plague. At first, it didn’t seem like a terrible thing, but after a while it didn’t seem natural for her not to be around, jabbering on and on about this or that. I missed her babbling. She could be annoying, sure, but annoying in a comforting way. Now I sit alone in the lunchroom every day, left to realized how few friends I had always had.

Guys who had never before noticed me now began to drift in my direction, sitting at the opposite end of the lunch table. Lose a few pounds and all of a sudden you are visible to people who had never really seen you. How incredibly shallow. Inside I was exactly the same person I had always been, but it seemed people, especially guys, were interested in outsides. I just ignored them and their hedging attempts to talk to me. They probably thought I was stuck-up, but I didn’t care what they thought. Oddly they more I ignored them, the more the tried to talk to me, which annoyed me in a much more annoying way than Coralee had ever been, and that made me miss her even more.

By Christmas vacation, I was down to 109 pounds. The clothes I had worn were all now baggy. My waist was so slim I could see the abdominal muscles I never knew I had. My wrists and ankles seemed too bony, and veins looked like tiny blue worms under the skin of my hands and feet. To me it was pretty gross, but everybody seemed to like the way I looked now– as though before there had been something wrong with me, and nobody had had the heart to mention it.

On Christmas Eve, my aunt and uncle visited my house, as they always did. For them it was a short walk down the street. They brought gifts, but they also brought Coralee. I had no doubt she had made a fuss about even being in the same house with me. It appeared as though she would rather be anywhere else on earth, maybe even in the simmering cone of some active volcano.

After all the food was eaten and the gifts opened, I found myself sitting alone in the living room. The Christmas tree was lit up, with some strings of lights pulsing. The television was showing some sappy old Christmas movie, but thankfully somebody had turned off the sound.

Then Coralee wandered in from the kitchen, where the adults sat drinking coffee and exchanging family gossip.

She flopped down at the opposite end of the sofa. She didn’t say anything. She just sat there, pretending to be interested in the movie, which she couldn’t even hear.

Finally she said, “Hey.”

“Hey,” I said.

“You still mad at me?” she asked.

I looked over at her. “I never was mad at you. You were mad at me.”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“Were so,” I said.

And we ended up almost getting into an argument over who had been mad at whom. We stopped and looked at each other, and then broke out laughing. It was so ridiculous.

After our laughter died down, Coralee sat close to me.

“Girl, you’re looking good,” she said.

“I never started it to look good,” I said. “I just wanted to feel better.”

“Whatever, you still look great. I always thought you just had a fat face, but you actually have high cheek bones.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Who knew?”

After a thoughtful pause, she muttered, “I hate you, bitch, an gave me a playful shove, and we cracked up all over again.

“But, seriously,” Coralee said, then, “I don’t think you should push it too far.”

“Oh, I’m not,” I said.

“Because– now don’t get me wrong; I think you’re smokin’– but you look a bit pale.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, but just a bit.”

“I’m not even down to my ideal weigh,” I pointed out.

“Ideal weight? Listen to you,” she said, and sighed. “I shouldn’t have pushed you into all of it. I think I ruined you somehow. Ideal weight. You wouldn’t have ever said anything like that before.”

“It’s all right,” I told her. “It feels great. That’s all I ever wanted.”

“You were happier before I opened my big mouth.”

“I’m still happy.”

“Are you? You seemed pretty miserable.”

“Only because you weren’t talking to me,” I said.

“Really?”

“Sure.”

“And that was the only reason.”

“Yeah, why else?”

She seemed satisfied, but still wouldn’t explain why she had got all snarky on me to begin with. “You should just eat regular now, the way you did before, you know? Even if you gain back a couple pounds.”

“I always planned on doing that,” I said.

“You sure?– you sure you’re not, like, obsessing.”

“Yeah,” I said, and to prove it, I made her follow me into the dining room, where the two of us pigged out on leftover cake and homemade Christmas cookies.

All in all, it was the best Christmas I had ever had, despite the fact that the cake and cookies didn’t sit right on my stomach and later I had to go to the bathroom to throw up– yeah, other than that it would have been so perfect.

 

Some things take on a life of their own. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. Whatever the case, you have no control over what is happening, and that can get pretty scary.

By the time I returned to school, I had been on my old diet for over a week. It didn’t seem, though, that I was gaining back any weight. At first I thought this was a good thing, but then one day, after gym, I weighed myself on the scale in the locker room. I was astonished to discover I’d lost another two pounds! How was that even possible? I’d eaten like this before and never lost an ounce.

Coralee suggested that maybe the scale was wrong, but I didn’t think so.

“I actually feel it,” I said.

She scoffed at me “How can you feel it? That’s impossible. It’s only two pounds.”

“Two pounds on top of thirty-three pounds,” I said.

But she just shook her head. “No way. Everything will go back to normal. Just keep eating like that,” she said, nodding at my lunch tray; I had two chili dogs, French fries, a piece of chocolate cake, and a non-diet soda.

“I’ve been eating like this,” I said. “Shouldn’t it be making a difference already?”

She shrugged. “Maybe your metabolism is all jacked up into high gear. Maybe you should cut back on the running.”

“I already did that. I was up to three miles a day. Now I’m down to one. I don’t want to stop completely, because I sort of like it.”

“Like running? You’re sick, you know that,” she said. “Well, I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s just gonna take some time to get back to nor–” she stopped, as though struck by a troubling thought. “All the food you’re eating– it is staying down, right?”

“Well…”

“Lisa!”

“Well, most of it,” I said. 

She groaned.

“I’ve been eating nothing but vegetables and fruit…. My stomach just doesn’t seem used to junk anymore.”

“So you’re not… doing it on purpose.”

“No,” I said. “That’s gross. Why would I do that?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Some people do, you know.”

“Well, not me. It’s doing it all on its own. My stomach’s just a little messed up– it’s getting better.”

“Promise?”

“Sure.”

“Then I’m sure it’ll be all right,” she said, but didn’t sound to sure.

 

According to the ideal weight calculator I used, my ideal weight was 103.5 pounds.

When I finally hit that weight, I decided that the calculator had to be wrong. If it was right, the my ideal physical condition was freakishly thin.

My cheeks seemed a bit to hollow, and on some days I woke with dark circles under my eyes. Worse than how I looked, I started to feel bad. I felt drained all the time, and so I had to give up running.

The last few lost pounds changed a lot of things. Guys who had been hovering around, looking for an opening to talk to me, slowly shied away. Everybody gave me odd looks now. At home my parents grew fretful. I probably didn’t even look like their child, but rather some kid they had had pity on and adopted. They insisted I see a doctor, but after he examined me and reviewed my blood tests, he claimed that I was in excellent condition.

Which was hard for me to believe. I didn’t feel in excellent condition; most of the time I felt like a wrung-out wash rag. I couldn’t stop thinking about how Coralee said doctors only practice medicine.

Coralee stopped talking about my weight or vitamins or anything like that. I wasn’t sure whether that was because she felt guilty or because her interest was already waning, giving way to another interest. She was talking an awful lot about needlepoint.

One weekend she rented some movies, and brought them over to my house, so that we could watch them on the big-screen television that was in the basement of our house. She ordered pizza, too, and paid for everything, which told me she was feeling some guilt, because she was extremely cheap and almost never parted with any of her baby-sitting money.

We pigged out on deep-dish pizza, and watched movies. It was a good time, and for a while, I forgot about how I was slowly fading away.

Then she put on the last movie, which was called Thinner, which was based on a Stephen King book. It was about a fat guy who gets cursed by a gypsy and keeps losing weight until he looks like a skeleton.

When I realized what the movie was about, I was horrified.

Coralee! How could you?” I thought it was a cruel joke.

“Honestly, I didn’t know,” she said, and went on the claim she had believed the movie was about a dog.

“A dog?”

“I thought that was the name of the dog.”

“Thinner? Who would name their dog Thinner?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “People name their dogs all kinds of weird things.”

“Don’t you read the boxes when you rent a movie?”

“Sure…sometimes.”

“Just turn it off– turn it off,” I said. I had my eyes half-covered with my hand; I couldn’t bare to look at the screen. I certainly didn’t want to know how the movie ends.

After she turned off the big screen, we sat on the floor and finished the pizza. It was could and lay on my stomach like a brick.

When Coralee spoke again, she asked if I wanted to turn on the stereo. I could tell that she felt pretty bad about the movie. You knew? Maybe it was an honest mistake. Maybe out there somewhere somebody would name their dog Thinner.

“No,” I said about the stereo. I didn’t run the risk of hearing some song about bulimia. That just would have been too much.

So we sat in silence and ate.

Our basement was always chilly during the winter, but I still felt warm. I was wearing just an old tee shirt and a pair of cut-off jeans. My legs looked like sticks, and my knees look like large knobs in the branch of an old tree. Beneath my skin you could see the roadmap of blue veins that ran everywhere.

When she thought I didn’t notice, Coralee sneaked looks at me. I caught the pained expression on her face.

I wanted to make her feel better. None of it was her fault; there was no way she could have known what kind of reaction I’d have to a simple change of eating habits. Suddenly me stomach started to churn and make a gurgly sound, and I knew what was about to happen– something I noticed a couple weeks before, something that I thought would cheer her up.

“Hey,” I said. “You want to see something trippy?”

“What?”

“Watch this.” I lifted my shirt so that she could see my stomach. She winced, and I told her, “No, just keep watching.” And then it happened.

A small ripple ran under my skin from one side of my upper stomach to the other.

I thought it was hilarious, but Coralee’s eyes bugged out in horror.

“What– what was that?” she stammered.

“I’m not sure,” I said “I think it’s the pizza getting digested. Pretty weird, huh?”

“Girl, you need to see a doctor,” she said.

“I did. He said I was perfect now.”

“Well, he never saw that, that’s for sure. No way is that normal.”

“It’s funny, though, isn’t it?” I said.

“No, it’s not funny. Nothing about it is funny,” she cried. She jumped to her feet and began pacing the way she always did whenever she was upset. “I should have kept my big mouth shut. I can’t believe I did this to you–”

“You? You didn’t do anything–” I tried to tell her, but she wasn’t listening.

“Stupid– stupid– stupid–” she hissed, and with each word she cuffed herself in the side of her head so hard that I was afraid she might actually knock herself out.

I tried to stop her, but couldn’t. Everything must have built up inside her over the weeks, and now she just had to get it all out. Finally she flopped down to the floor like a rag doll, and sat their softly crying and sniffling.

I knelt down next to her.

“Coralee, it’s all right,” I said.

“Don’t say that,” she said gravely, too gravely for the situation as I saw it.

“Don’t say what?” I asked.

“Don’t say it’s all right,” she said, and sniffled as though she needed to blow her nose. “That’s an awful thing to say.”

“It’s all right?”

“There, you did it again. I swear,” she said, and balled her hand into a fist, “if you say it again, I’ll punch you right in the head.” And she looked about ready to do it, too.

“I don’t understand what the problem is,” I said, and really didn’t.

“It’s it obvious?” she asked.

“No.”

“You’re dying,” she said, “and it’s all because of me– me and my big mouth.”

“Dying?” That was ridiculous. Of course, I wasn’t dying. “Coralee, I’m not dying. What would put that in your head?”

She stopped sniffling. “I know what you’re doing,” she said. “And don’t tell me you’re not.”

“Not what?”

“You’re making yourself sick.”

“No, I’m not,” I said, astounded that she would accuse me of such a thing. “I told you before– it’s just that my stomach bothers me sometimes– that’s all. Trust me. I’m not doing that, and I’m not dying.”

“How much do you weigh now, anyway,” she asked, and seemed to dread the answer

“I’m not sure,” I lied. “I haven’t weighed myself in a week.”

“How much?” she asked, totally not believing me.

“It’s not that bad.”

How much?”

I hedged before I told her, “A hundred even.”

“A hundred!”

“But it’ll be all right.”

“How? How’s it gonna be all right?”

“I’ve been watching it really close. It took a lot longer to lose the last couple pounds. My stomach is feeling better. It’s about to stop.”

“Sure, it has to stop,” she said. “You don’t have anything else to lose.”

“It’s be all right,” I promised.

Then she said the strangest thing. “I loved you when you were fat.”

“Uh, I though you said I wasn’t fat.”

“Oh, you were fat,” she assured me. “But that was you. I don’t know why I even had to mention it.”

“It never had anything to do with my weight, anyway. I just wanted to feel better, and I do– even now,” I said.

“Really? You’re not just saying that?”

“No, so stop worrying, because there’s nothing to worry about.

 

My weight finally bottomed out at 97 pounds, before I slowly regained some of the lost pounds.

By summer I was back to 111 pounds, and it seemed as though that was where my weight would settle. I resumed running, which, even today, I still enjoy. It makes me feel good. Of course, there is always that little letdown after I run, but that only makes me look forward to the next day, when I can run again. I am up to six miles a day, and I am sure that in the fall I will have no trouble making the cross-country team.

Coralee went through three or four more hobbies. Sometimes, I lose track. By summer she was into archery. She tried to get me interested, too, but I begged off; I couldn’t shake off the image of an arrow zipping straight for my forehead as she tried to shoot an apple off my head. This even caused a couple nightmares.

Her family moved away at the beginning of summer. In the fall she will be attending a different school. As annoying as she can be, I will still miss her. If nothing else, she has always been well-meaning. And she really does care, in her own demented sort of way. Sometimes I still laugh to myself at how she actually believed I was sticking my finger down my throat to make myself vomit. I mean… as if…. I still wonder where she got the idea; even I couldn’t picture myself doing something like that. Oh, sure, there were a couple times I did do it. But it was never a habit. My stomach was bothering me and I was going to throw up anyway. I figured I’d just save the time, and get it over with. Also, I felt a little stupid standing and leaning over the toilet, and waiting. So what not?

All that is behind me now, anyway. My weight is fine. My stomach is fine. I’m running six miles a day, and by the fall, I will be up to seven or eight, or maybe even ten. Who knows? All I know is that everything is fine and it’s going to stay that way– really.

For sure. 

The Scent of Evil

Posted in short stories, young adult on May 9, 2009 by tomupton33

1

 

It was late spring that year, and I had that giddy feeling I got every year after school let out for the summer. The whole world was green, and green had a smell, and that smell was of new leaves and mowed grass. Even the dusty, dank attic of our house smelled green– if you left the window open long enough.

I spent endless hours playing catch with my brother, Biddy. I wasn’t clear how he’d come to be called Biddy, for his name was really Bobby. He was three years younger than I, who was eleven at the time, and he had such bad co-ordination that he caught the ball only about half the time before it hit him– in the chest or stomach or knee– if it hit him in the face, he’d go crying into the house, and that signaled the end of playing catch for the day.

Once he got hit in the eye, which turned purple and nearly swelled shut, and my father gave me a good whipping for throwing the ball so hard. It had been an accident, of course, and I felt bad about it– sort of– but still I got the whipping. That was the way it was in our house; there was no such thing as a mishap. My father was a devout Christian, and though he believed you if you told him whatever happened was an accident, he also believed that the devil had got into you and made you have the accident without you realizing it and so he had to whip the devil out of you. He’d say that you couldn’t smell evil, because it gave off no scent, but you could pretty well assume it was always around. It didn’t seem fair, sure, but it was no less fair than many other things. I supposed I was a good Christian, too, from what I recalled from the Bible; Christians always seemed to be taking a beating for no good reason I could see, and then, when I thought about the ones that were eaten by lions and such, I figured I didn’t have much to complain about.

 

 

 

 

Biddy and I still tossed the ball back and forth every day. The heat didn’t bother us as much as it bothered the adults, who sat out on their front porches each evening and tried to catch the slightest breeze. We were throwing the ball back and forth in front of the house when something strange happened. Biddy reached out to catch the ball and missed, which he did pretty often, only this time he missed in a peculiar way. The ball snicked off the end of his glove, which he was raising at the moment, and went up into the air and bounced in the street. It was a rubber-coated league ball, and it bounced fairly high. As wicked luck would have it, a panel truck– one we didn’t recognize, and obviously driven by an evil minion of Satan — was speeding down the street and before the ball could hit the pavement again, the truck intervened and the ball shot off the front fender of the truck. The ball was propelled up and across the street where it ricocheted off the trunk of a large old oak tree, changed directs again and ended up crashing through one of the four little windows of the front door of house across the street.

Biddy and I looked at each other in horror. We knew there was no way somebody wasn’t taking a beating for this one. It was a bizarre incident, and it looked as if the devil himself had sent that ball on its crooked course, like one of the small silver balls in pinball machine, which we could never play because our father said they were evil.

We did the worse thing possible, then; we ran, we ran and hid under our front porch. Our father had always told us that there was one thing worse that committing a sinful act, and that was running away from the punishment you had coming to you. We didn’t think of that of the moment, and as we hunkered down unseen we felt very safe– for the time being, anyway.

We watched from under the porch and spied on Mr. Crawford, who lived in that house, as he walked outside with our baseball in his hand, which was gnarled like the roots of an old tree. Under the best circumstances, he was a crotchety old guy who retired years ago because arthritis ruined most of his joints, along with anything pleasant in his personality. He had to be even more miserable than usual, what with the heat and no air conditioning or fans and his T-bones steaks, which he enjoyed barbequing in solitude, going bad in his warm freezer. He paused on his porch, propped up by his wooden cane, and looked up and down the street in a searching way.

“He didn’t see us, did he?” Biddy asked, hopeful.

I didn’t say anything. I really wasn’t sure.

 

As though to settle the manner, Mr. Crawford crept down his stairs and headed straight for our house. It would have been an actual beeline if he hadn’t been so slow. At last he reached our porch, and as he climbed the wooden stairs, dust fell down on us from under the stair boards. We couldn’t hear exact what Mr. Crawford said to our father, but from our position, it didn’t sound too neighborly.

“Boy, are you going to get a whipping,” Biddy whispered.

“Me?”

“Yeah, you threw the ball.”

 

“Still, you threw it,” he countered. “If you didn’t throw it, none of it would have happened, either.”

Only our father would be able to settle that dispute.

 

  

2

  

 

As it turned out Mr. Crawford not only told our father what we had done but also that we had run off and were hiding under the porch.

After our father dragged us out from our hiding place, we discovered that we each would get a whipping. We went up to the living room, where my father spent most of his free time watching television and waiting for my mother to bring him something to eat. Because of the lack of power, the television and the electric stove weren’t working, and so he was in a particularly foul mood himself. He didn’t even try to amuse himself in other ways, but just sat there on our beat-up sofa and stared into space, as though growing more irritated by the minute that the electric wasn’t coming on. So it wasn’t a good time to take a whipping from him– no time was, really.

There was a set process to the event. I, being the older child, would be dealt with first. While he sat on the sofa, pulling off his belt, I stood in front of him and dropped my pants. The receiver of a whipping– in his book, anyway– was expected to stand there and take it without crying and trying to run away. Either transgression was punishable by harder or more numerous lashes of his belt. I had taken so many beating in my life already, I knew all the tricks. It was always advisable not to stand too far away; my father was a husky man– if he hadn’t been my father, I’d say he was downright fat– and his belt seemed endlessly long. If you stood too far away, you got caught by the very tip of the belt and it felt as though you’d been hit with a bull whip. In baseball, the same principle applies when you pitch a batter inside rather than over the plate. I had also learned the trick of appearing badly hurt by the whipping although it barely bothered me at all. This little deception was necessary, since I never wanted my father to get the idea in his head that he was under-punishing me. It was amazing what could inspire a person to develop acting abilities.

After he was finished with me, it was Biddy’s turn. Biddy did not know how to act. He never cried any more. He had run once, but had discovered what a huge mistake that was, and so no longer tried to escape. He just stood there and took the whipping as though it was nothing. That was why our father always beat him more. The kid didn’t have the sense to fake anything, and afterward he would always seem very proud that he had got beat worse than I had and endured the procedure without so much as a whimper. He was a good kid, really, but I suspected not too bright.

I learned later that the whipping was only part of my punishment. It seemed that throwing the ball– as though the devil himself threw the ball with my arm– was a much greater sin than Biddy’s sin of not catching it. My father informed me that I would have to go and fix the window that had been broken.

“But I don’t know how to do that,” I protested.

“I’ll show you,” he said, and he had that tone in his voice with which nobody could ever argue. “It’s about time you learn to fix things– especially if you start going round and breaking them.”

I couldn’t protest any more, for fear of getting another whipping. I had never in my life had back-to-back whippings, and I didn’t wish now to see whether I could withstand them. It didn’t seem fair to me, though; it was like going to the store and paying for a gallon of milk, and then having the cashier ask you for an extra quarter.

 

  

3

 

 

Before I crossed the street Saturday morning, which oddly was a beautiful morning with new hope and sweet summer scents, I must have asked my father a half dozen time if he told Mr. Crawford that I had my beating.

He assured me that Mr. Crawford understood everything and that he was a good and forgiving Christian. He told me just go over there and fix the window and promise him that it will never happen again. It puzzled me that I had to make such a promise; considering the weirdness of the incident, how could I know for sure that it wouldn’t happen again? All that concerned me, really, was that Mr. Crawford understood I’d been punished, because I didn’t want him hovering around me as I replaced the glass, harping at me, as old folks tend to do, for breaking the glass in the first place.

After I rang the doorbell, I thought it would take a month for the old man to reach the door and let me in. I could see him through the old, broken glass as he approached the door. He was snail slow. I really did feel sorry for him, though, when I saw how his knees bowed out badly and how his pants hung off his waist so baggy. His body was so bent and skinny from age. It was clear that the years and the arthritis had taken a bad toll on him, and then to boot his wife had passed away long ago and left him to suffer alone.

He finally opened the door. He muttered a gruff, “There you go,” turned away and thankfully headed back toward the kitchen to let me work on my own.

I took the old broken glass out of the frame first, and then cleared away the old caulking, which was so dried out it nearly fell off itself. I set the new glass in the frame. The glass fit perfectly, and I was relieved my father had taken a good measurement the day before– I would hardly have known what to do if the glass had been too big. With my fingers I pressed eight, two on each side, of the small flat metal triangles into the frame so that they held the glass in place. The points of the triangles were pretty sharp and they dug easily into the old sun bleached wood. I caulked around the edges of the glass, then, trying to kept the caulking even and neat while making sure the tops of the metal triangles were completely covered.

When I was finished, I stepped back to assess my job. It was pretty good, really, considering that I had never done anything like before, never seen anybody perform the job, and was only going on my father’s oral instructions. Except for a couple smudgy fingerprints on the glass, I had to say the job looked pretty professional.

I cleaned up the mess, then, the broken glass and old caulking that had fallen on the floor. I put it all in the big brown bag, along with the caulking gun and opened package of tiny triangles.

I went back to the kitchen to look for Mr. Crawford to tell him how totally sorrow I was about what had happened and how it would never happen again. I found him standing at the old kitchen sink. He was scrubbing some pots and pans. His back was to me, and I paused to notice how old and frail he looked. With his legs so bad, he seemed to have a hard time balancing without his cane, which was set against the side of the sink so he could use both hands to scour a pan that looked hopelessly caked with brown stuff. There were suds halfway up his forearms, which were so thin you could nearly see the bones and wrinkled skin hung loosely off those bones.

I felt totally ashamed then, standing there and watching him. He was just an old man who wanted to live alone with his pains until the Good Lord saw fit to relief him. The last thing he needed was a baseball crashing through his front window. Even though I believed it had been an accident, I still thought it was an awful thing to do to him and I felt responsible.

I stepped up to apologize.

“Mr. Craw–”

I never got his entire name out. I never got to say how sorry I was, or how it would never happened again, or anything other than half his name.

The old man, quicker than I would have though possible, spun round and cracked me on the head with a frying pan. I saw a bright flash of light, and all I could I could hear was the echo of metal, as though my head had been inside a big brass church bell just after it tolled to beckon all the faithful within earshot.

Mr. Crawford muttered something. It sounded like, “And there you go,” or something– I wasn’t really sure, due to all the reverberating going on in my skull.

I just wandered out of the house, then, went across the street and settled down on my front stairs. I sat there and felt the lump rise at the top of my forehead. It felt about as big as a large robin egg when the swelling finally stopped.

A while later, my father walked up and asked did I fix the window and apologize to Mr. Crawford.

I told him everything that happened, and he stood there, looking down at me and wagging his head.

“Well, that’s the way it goes, sometimes,” he said.

“What about forgiveness?” I asked.

“I’m sure God forgives you, and that’s about all that really counts. Sounds like the devil got into Mr. Crawford. It happens. It happens to everybody now and then,” he said and sounded wistful. Then he walked away and let me alone.

I sat there for a long while, staring across the street at the house whose front door had three dirty windows and one so new it shined so brightly it made the other three seem all the dirtier. I wished that someone would invent something, some kind of machine that could detect evil, like an electronic evil sniffer. That way everyone would know when evil was about, and they could protect themselves– or at least learn when to duck. Until we have such a machine, I guessed, we all have to assume evil is all around us all the time, and we all, from time to time, are going to have to take a beating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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