"Are you mad?"
Brett stood over me, shirt half untucked, hair every which way. My mouth was numb and tongue felt too big to fit. I'd been hit before, by bigger, but this hurt the worst. I was sure he could see the surprise underneath all my scowling. I turned my head to spit and it was red.
"Just stay where you are."
Brett's face fell.
I gathered myself and got up with my back against the wall. If it could be believed, Brett was smaller than me; slight, neck like a fishing bird, with puffy round cheeks and vaguely almond shaped eyes. I blamed it on account of him being a vegetarian, my having grown up around people who believed eating red meat was what made man the dominant species. I wasn't a big kid by any stretch, but I ate a lot of hamburgers and second stomach promised one day it would all catch up.
Then it occurred to me: small kids sure had to fight a lot.
I touched the side of my jaw and made a face. Brett looked nervous. It was the first time we'd ever more than argued over who was cooler, Chewbacca or C-3PO. Since things were so weird at home, Brett came to be my every day normal. Unlike me, he was well liked by the students and the teachers and often found himself on the receiving end of their praise. I could see why others thought that, likely for many of the same reasons I did. Deep down I thought it was possible my being around him would somehow brush off. At least I hoped so.
Today it seemed something was brushing off, and it didn't feel at all like Brett's seven-year-old swagger. I kept one eye on him while I moved away from the wall. I could tell he was angry with me, and I couldn't help but concur. I was pretty sure he thought I'd lost my mind.
Maybe I had.
"Let's just forget it."
Brett pinched one eye part way closed. He was thinking it over.
He turned to me as we were walking away, skewering me with his stare.
"Don't do it again. Ever."
I gave him a stiff nod and stuffed my hands in my pockets. Brett's were still fists as he rounded the corner.
It was going on twenty minutes now, but I couldn't fake it any longer.
"You don't have to eat it if you don't want to."
Things were already weird enough, but "cooked corn" topped the list. At least everything else on my plate was normal: chicken, mashed potatoes, carrots. I was used to adventures in home cooking from Mom, who while not the most inventive chef, generally made things I could at least learn to enjoy.
Marcia, I determined, was less skilled in that area.
"He loves to try new things, don't you Whisker? I think it's delicious."
Mom angled another forkful of the caked monstrosity into her mouth, flashing me a scowl as Marcia got up for another bottle of wine.
"I just don't have time to cook like I used to with, you know, work."
"It's wonderful, Marcia. Thank you for having us over."
"I like having boys around the place is all."
"How long's it been since you and Reb--"
She put a hand on her hip, striking a contemplative pose.
"My how the time flies."
Her laugh was easy and nervous. I didn't really know how Mom came to know Marcia, but they got along like old friends. She lived in a shadowy split level with an attached two car garage at the end of a development gone stale. An open lot littered with piles of weathered fill abutted
the property, partially obscured by sowthistle and foxtails. Marcia's kids used to ride dirt bikes back there, or so I heard. I wanted to take a look when we arrived, but Marcia said the boys hadn't been back there for quite some time and likely there were snakes and other pests taking up residence. That put Mom on high alert.
I was, after all, allergic to snakes.
Marcia looked like a movie star to my young eyes; a Farrah Fawcett or Morgan Fairchild. She was slender, attractive, long too blonde hair feathered as was the custom. She wore an only halfway buttoned up blue satin top that, depending on how she stood, peeked the edge of her bra strap. Lots of mascara and eye liner belied her accessibility. I liked her smile: all those perfect teeth.
She poured another glass for Mom and put the bottle on the table.
"Just wait until you see what I got for dessert."
I couldn't help but return it.
Ten bites later I was on my second slice of watermelon sherbet roll with chocolate chip seeds. It didn't even taste all that great, but it was watermelon ice cream which equaled awesome. Mom didn't have any, saying she was watching her weight. Well she could watch me eat her piece.
I liked the way Marcia's hands moved when she did things, any things. She made it all seem effortless. There was a grace in her where in Mom it was all semis and bulldozers. I found myself wishing Marcia were my mom and Mom was the friend whom we visited on occasion that cooked well, but not overly so, and I got to play with her son's Hot Wheels collection. Marcia seemed like the kind of mom who wouldn’t spank her boys when they did something bad, but maybe take away dessert or an hour of tv time. Stuff that worked. I doubt she even raised her voice; it was hard to picture her even getting mad. Then I remember she was an all but brand new divorcée and wondered what kind of asshole her ex husband had to be to make her leave him. I’d never met the man, but I had visions of sinister facial hair. Perhaps he was one of those people who look and act all normal until you live in the same house with them.
I contemplated all of this as my stomach filled with cream and sugar and at some point began to bother me. By then, however, I was lost in little metal cars and their carrying case that turned into a miniature city. Normally they stayed in her youngest son’s closet, but knowing I’d be there, Marcia got them out special. I was, in fact, so engrossed in making sure all accounted for vehicles made it to the service center, the wave of nausea caught me off guard. One minute I was rotating tires, the next I was honking bright pink chunks. I shuddered, gasping in between heaves.
At least I chewed my potatoes.
Once I’d stopped long enough to realize what a mess I’d made, it was cold comfort. Marcia’s house wasn’t immaculate, but compared to mine, it was the Ritz: wall to wall carpeting, plush furniture, dark wood paneling, even a finished basement. Now that carpet looked like the Pink Panther swallowed a live grenade. In the end, it didn’t matter how Marcia would react; Mom would have the conniption for both of them.
I stumbled to my feet and wobbled my way into the kitchen. The second bottle of wine was almost empty and Mom was giggling. Until she saw me.
“Whisker, what’s wrong?”
“Are you feeling okay, honey?”
Hearing Marcia ask that made me want to soldier up, maybe even try to walk it off, but second stomach had other ideas. I doubled over, tripping, and landing on my knees with a grunt.
“Oh my God, are you alright?”
Mom knocked over her chair getting up and rushed to my side.
“Are you okay? Did you get sick?”
I nodded feebly. Marcia tugged at her collar, worried.
“I’ll get some towels.”
I hoped she didn’t have to use the nice ones.
It was just a regular day at school when I got there. I dropped my lunch box off in the cafeteria, put my jacket in my locker, grabbed the latest issue of Mad from my backpack. I saw all the same kids I usually did, a quick pass by the upstairs library revealed that it was, as the day before, a shambles, and my art supplies were still next to my desk where I forgot to put them away. It was an artificial comfort, this normalcy, this place for everything and everything in its place. In truth, there was nothing at all tranquil in always being on the outside, and while a part of me suspected the secret life I coveted was a prison of its own, I could tell the bed was comfortable.
I sat down, peeling back the cover of my reading material. The first story was a parody of a murderous man machine sent back in time to kill the mother of the boy who would grow up to destroy its maker. The whole thing was pretty unbelievable, but it didn't take a whole lot to imagine the fear of being hunted. The thought of a dog that was a machine underneath crossed my mind and I shuddered. I put the magazine under my desk and opted instead to pick at my fingernails until class started.
It was several minutes past the hour when Mrs. Switt arrived, having no appearance of hurry. Next to her was a woman I didn't recognize, but there were plenty of teachers and substitutes I didn't know at school. Mrs. Switt put her briefcase on her desk and smoothed down the front of her business skirt before taking a breath and walking to the front of the room to address the class. The unfamiliar woman followed.
"Class, I've brought someone with me I'd like you to meet."
I was too busy picking to pay much attention. It wasn't anything I hadn't heard before.
"This is my daughter, Kimberlea. She's thinking about going to school to be a teacher as well."
"And since this is bring your harlot to work day--"
"I thought maybe she could send some time with you all-- get to know the class."
I decided maybe it was time to pay attention.
"Hi, everyone, I'm Kimberlea, and yes, Mrs. Switt is my mom. If you want, you can call me Ms. Switt, but Kimberlea is fine-- my friends call me Kim."
Brett raised his hand.
"Yes? Umm, Brett is it?"
"What's your question, Brett."
"Can I call you Kim?"
Everyone giggled at this. Even Mrs. Switt cracked a smile, which was rare.
"Yes you may."
Brett's grin threatened to crack his face.
It started as a weird little tingle down in my belly, this thing. It was small and frail and hungry, like a baby chicken. No, not at chicken. Something not so nice. Something-- dark. This dark little thing, it had claws, but they were so small and its teeth had yet to come in, so it needed help. It needed to be cared for, looked after, nurtured and fed. I thought of kittens, but this was something that would sooner eat a kitten. It had fur now, and in its own way, was cute, even adorable, in a certain angle and a certain light. But when it grew up, that fur and cute and hugability would be replaced with something nasty; the kind of thing kids like me hid from in the closet or under the bed.
Unless it lived there.
Kim walked down the rows of desks, talking to each of the students, smiling, laughing, eliciting the same from my peers. When she got to Brett's desk, her smile was full of teeth.
Brett didn't miss a beat.
They laughed together which made the dark thing in my belly squirm. Moments later Kim stood over me and I had to brush the hair from my face to see her. Sitting like I was, I was eye level with her chest, and I’m pretty sure she noticed how I lingered before looking her square. She was fair skinned and at the cusp of chubby, with wavy strawberry blonde hair that was a tad lighter than my own. Her eyes were sapphires, brilliant and glistening, with a splash of freckles over her cheeks and nose. I tried to smile, but it somehow seemed like a copout. Then my brain went stupid.
There are several hundred thoughts that cross a boy’s mind when he wants to impress a girl, all at once. It’s a river of ideas, some good, some not completely terrible, and a whole bunch of borderline offensive garbage. In general, I was pretty good at this game, and had yet to make a complete ass of myself, but there’s a first time for everything and today was no exception.
In looking at Kim, I could tell she wasn't your average teenage girl. She had finesse, refinement, and would grow into a woman who not only knew what she wanted, but how to get it. Of my several considerations, I decided a simple handshake would do the trick. It was polite, direct and reliable. Just like me.
Now I'll be the first to admit I didn't shake a lot of hands; it just wasn't something I, as an eight year old, had much occasion to do. I'd seen Dad do it plenty of times, and other men, and plenty in movies and tv, even a few times myself. Shaking hands is something men do with other men. I extended my hand, from my seated position, and in that moment dawned the gravity of my error.
I attempted a smooth transition from handshake to wave, achieving something more toward the middle one might perform when hailing the Third Reich. What I hadn’t anticipated was how Kim leaned forward, perhaps to make her greeting a little more personal. It was personal all right.
In my attempt to pass off the mid shake change of mind as some half-assed wave, I instead planted my hand firmly on her left boob. My eyes went wide, then hers, and I jerked it away like I’d put it down on a hot burner. She let out a little gasp, and backed up a step as I discreetly removed the offending limb from sight under my desk, a petrified half smile on my lips. I hoped it came off as well meaning and not at all creepy, but my track record thus far pointed toward the latter.
To her credit, Kim composed herself and gave me a quick smile-- just her mouth, I noted-- and moved right along to the girl who sat behind me. It appeared no one else noticed, and I was, for the time being, free from ridicule or swift penalty. I caught Kim’s eye from the corner of my own, searching. My belly pinched.
Maybe Brett wasn’t rubbing off on me like I hoped.
Grandma could tell I was having a bad day-- she had a way of figuring out what was bothering you just by your look. I suppose sprawling myself across the couch with my arms folded, chin pressed against my chest was something of a tell, but I conceded her the simple joy of trying to make me comfortable. Not that I had a choice.
“Anything you need, hon?”
I twisted up my lips, not sure what to say and just wanting to be left alone.
“Nothing to eat? Maybe some pop?”
“What about some ice cream? There’s two kinds in the freezer and other flavors downstairs."
I shook my head, trying to hide the involuntary shudder from Grandma having mentioned where it was. Downstairs meant the basement which I hated and always made second stomach curl up into a golf ball, as if making itself as small as possible might afford it some inherent safety.
Mom came into the room, breathing heavy. She probably just finished cleaning something.
"He says he doesn't want anything, Mom."
"Oh, he just can't make up his mind. You know how boys are."
"Yes, I do."
"I thought something sweet might improve his mood is all. It always worked with you."
Mom exhaled the way she always did when words might put her in trouble and pushed her way past Grandma, shooing me to the end of the couch so she could sit down.
"He already eats enough junk food as it is. It's a wonder he doesn't have diabetes."
Grandpa let out a short grunt at that, but whether it was amusement or disdain was anyone's guess. His eyes never left the tv.
"Kids his age need sugar, Kathryn, you know that. Look at him. He's skin and bones."
Mom knew what that meant, which elicited a glare. I could see the gears spinning.
"I'm quite capable of deciding what he does or doesn't need."
"Of course you are, dear. I wouldn't say otherwise."
"You mean like you just did?"
"I don't know--"
"JESUS SUFFERING CHRIST I'M TRYING TO WATCH THE NEWS."
Grandpa's bottom lip quivered. A look of worry flashed over Grandma and in the next moment she was composed where Mom's eyes were practically bugging from the sockets. I bit back a giggle and Grandma turned to Grandpa.
"Is there anything I can get you, dear?"
I chimed in.
"A glass of pop."
Mom smacked my foot.
"What do you say?"
"Of course, sweetie."
My mood was improving.
I sat with Mom in the car in the mall parking lot. It was warm for being so close to the holidays, and we both rolled our windows down half way. It was my weekend to spend with Dad and I was excited, having been close to three months since the last time we did something together. Today we would go to the arcade and I couldn't wait.
Mom fidgeted in her seat. It was an old Chevette, so there wasn't much seat to speak of. Everything squeaked when she moved around and a little grin broke out of my mouth thinking it was the mice who made the car go. My stomach growled and mom gave me a worried look. Another twenty minutes and both hands white-knuckled the steering wheel.
"Screw this. We're going to Burger King."
I spent the rest of the morning sulking at my desk. My class participation was at best minimal, and my hopes of impressing a girl twice my age all but dashed. In my defeat, I chose to be a spoiled sport and made no outward attempt to curb my attitude. Mrs Switt picked up on this right away and, while she had yet to call me on it, kept her eye on me the whole time.
Not that it mattered, but Kim was in a chair next to Brett's desk helping him work on our class project. We were given a sheet of paper explaining that while on an at sea fishing trip, our boat capsized and we were stranded on a desert island without aid for a least fourteen days. We were given a list of items that may or not be critical in a survival situation. There were a couple of dozen choices, but were told only five items would fit in the travel pack. I read through the choices several times, but nothing stood out. This was hard.
Why couldn't it be the best weapons to slay a dragon or even how to survive on almost no sleep and junk food against an enemy I couldn't see nor fight? I didn't fish, I couldn't even swim, so the likelihood of being in the ocean at all was slim. I checked off waterproof matches. It seemed as good a choice as any.
Behind me and to the left, Brett whispered and Kim giggled. Then she whispered and he busted into fits. It was hard to concentrate, all this interruption, not to mention the thing that hatched in my belly wriggling and kneading and scratching around. It was hungry-- it was always hungry-- and I fed it the things in my mind and my heart. First I fed it my happy thoughts, which were few, and it gulped them down like they were nothing. Then I gave it my fear and apprehension, and it shredded them into little bits and ate them piece by piece. I hoped it was satisfied, but it still paced and mewled and seethed. I offered it my shame, disappointment and loss, and it savored them, sucking them lewdly. Having next to nothing left, I figured I was done, but it just seemed hungrier. So I gave it my hate and jealousy as there was nothing else, and that’s when it changed.
It was no longer this pitiful thing unable to protect itself. It was still small, sure, but the fur was now scales, its mouth lined with tiny, sharp teeth. It shuddered and shook and caused a ruckus and let me know it was there to stay. A small part of me was pleased with this news, but the lion’s share was horrified. What was this thing inside me?
A tiny voice whispered behind my ear:
Something kept tickling my face. My first thought was spider webs, but with the way Mom cleaned I knew that was impossible, and I gathered up the courage to open one sleepy eye.
There was almost no light in the room, the heavy, layered curtains over the window soaking up the arthritic glow of the street lamp at the end of the front walk. I could just make out the shadow on the bed next to me and it felt like someone was there, watching. I checked my underwear-- it was dry-- and creeped the same hand across the bed under the covers until I felt something cool, smooth and hard.
“Keep your hands to yourself.”
It was going on four nights now I’d wake up and find her in the bed next to me. She did most of the talking-- almost all nonsense-- and a couple of times she sang a kid’s song I didn’t recognize. So far, by the time I found the courage to speak with her, she’d be gone.
“W-what do you want.”
The girl cleared her throat-- an impatient sound-- and I could feel her stare.
“It is never what I want.”
“Why do you keep bothering me?”
“This is my room. You are in my room.”
“Grandma said I could sleep here.”
“Grandma died in the storm.”
“What? She was fine when Mom put me--”
“Grandpa too. And Brushy.”
“What do you mean?”
“You are bad.”
“You are all bad. Grubby, cross little monsters. Do not touch me.”
“Ok, I won’t.”
“Not if you don’t want me to.”
She lunged toward me and I tried to melt into the mattress to escape, but just as her hands wrapped around my throat, she jerked upright, convulsed, and fell off the side of the bed. I listened for her, paralyzed, expecting her to leap up at any moment, but couldn’t pinpoint anything over my heart thudding in my eardrums. I peered over the edge and found only the clothes I’d left there before going to sleep.
I laid across the couch with nothing but the tv lighting the room. All that was on was baseball and I rolled over on my side, trying not to jostle my stomach too much. I could hear Mom and Marcia talking upstairs in the kitchen, but only made out specific words here and there. After I threw up half my life, Marcia gave me a spoonful of this pink, chalky stuff I surmised was akin to fighting fire with fire. The whole time Mom just sat there and watched, caught somewhere between fascinated and concerned. I never saw Mom drink before and wondered if that had something to do with it. She started washing dishes while Marcia cleaned up the mess I left in the front room. I guess being involved in some way was better than not at all. Marcia had an automatic dishwasher, but Mom did them all by hand.
"Feeling any better?"
It was Marcia. My heart did a little flip flop, which in turn made my belly do the same. I brought my knees up, fighting back the urge to make another mess.
"I guess so."
She got down on her knees next to me, running a hand over my forehead and brushing once sweaty hair from my eyes. I could just see her from the light of the tv, features softened by the corona. She smiled, yet still appeared sad. I blinked a few times and it never changed.
"You were very brave."
"I guess so."
"Are your knees okay? That looked like a nasty fall."
"I'll be all right."
I liked the way she talked to me. She made me feel strong, and smart; like the stupid things I did I meant to do and weren't stupid at all. I knew she was a great mom, maybe even a great girlfriend back when she was young. There was a point where they just blended together, but when I tried to make them separate again, I got stuck.
"How's your tummy?"
I barely heard the words I was too busy trying to make the things in my head stay on their own sides. It was frustrating, like a puzzle; not only did they fit so perfectly together, they refused to come back apart. Marcia's hands pulled back my tee shirt, were warm on my skin. She rubbed my belly like she rubbed my forehead, slow and soothing.
"Is that better?"
The things in my head wouldn't make themselves right. Mom here, girlfriend there. Which was which? I frowned.
"What's the difference between a mom and a girlfriend?"
"Shhhh. Just rest."
"It's okay. Your mom will take you home soon."
That was the other problem. I didn't want to go home.
Aunt Kyanna popped her head in the doorway, grinning. She had on a faded yellow tee with Animal from the Muppets, cut off shorts and leather sandals. Her sunglasses made me think of tv police men. There was a pack of cigarettes in her hand, like usual.
"Yeah? You seen your mom around?"
"Okay, Bud. Thanks."
I saw Grandpa appear from behind as Aunt Ky turned away, putting an elbow in his stomach. He doubled over and staggered back a step. She just rolled her eyes.
"Told you you'd get it next time you did that."
"Tryin ta kill me?"
Grandpa straightened up, no worse for wear, a little smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
"Whatcha got there?"
Aunt Ky twisted away, hands guarded.
"Nothing for you."
"Sure about that?"
"Better believe it."
"What are they?"
"You know damn well what they are."
"You know I switched to lights. Winstons."
"Thought you liked Marlboros."
"I did. These are smoother."
"Guess I just like 'em rough."
Grandpa let out a throaty chuckle that turned into a fit of deep, hacking coughs. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve when he was finished.
"You sound better."
"The medication must be working."
Aunt Ky gave a small shrug, sucking in air through her nose.
"Lemme have one."
"You know what the doctor said."
"I don't give a fat fuck WHAT the doctor said."
"Well I do."
"You testin' me?"
Ky's lips puckered.
"Fine. Just-- go out in the garage so no one sees."
Grandpa's smile was almost warm when he gave Aunt Ky a kiss on the forehead.
His gaze swept my way as he walked around Ky on his way to the back door and gave me the slightest of nods. Aunt Ky just stood there, arms folded, nervous. When she saw me, her eyes went wide.
"Don't tell your mom, Bud."
Ky disappeared into the kitchen and when I looked down and all my cars were crashed.
Mrs. Switt didn't seem like herself that day. She was smiling, laughing, making jokes. Normally she was just the opposite, but with her daughter, Kimberlea, there, she became a person I never thought I'd see. It was nice, even though I was in no mood to take advantage of it.
"How about you, Brett? What did you and Kim decide on?"
Brett's eyes pinched up, his patented unsure face. It was cute how he played it up.
"The, umm, peanut butter?"
Mrs. Switt grinned.
"Excellent choice. You see, class, a five pound tub of peanut butter is a perfect way for someone stranded to--"
I stopped listening. It really wasn't fair Brett got all the credit. He had help, from a cute teenage girl with at least one nice boob, who was also the teacher's daughter and probably already had the answers. Just what made him so special?
"Peanut butter is my favorite."
I mumbled into my sleeve.
I knew for a fact his favorite was egg salad; egg salad with dill mayo and kosher pickle to be exact. He had it in his lunch three times a week. Mrs. Switt shot me a look, but her smile never left. It was a warning, albeit a lazy one.
Brett wasn't done.
"Maybe we could find some berries and make jelly."
"That would be soooo good."
Everyone laughed in agreement. Everyone except me. Mrs. Switt continued.
"That's very good, Brett. Though you might want to watch for berries, they could be poisonous."
"I know which ones are okay. My dad's a botanist."
Everyone seemed elated by this revelation, where I just rolled my eyes. I’d met Brett’s dad and he didn’t seem like anything special. Certainly nothing as cool as a cowboy or a race car driver. Botanists know a lot about berries. So what? At least the class project was over.
The rest of the afternoon was more of the same: Brett being his normal, apparently charming self, and me being a bitch. I’d never considered a girl might come between me and my new best friend, but I had a lot to learn. Girls were just now becoming a problem for me and it was all downhill from here.
Then I heard Kim pipe up.
“Can we take him home?”
Giggling. Even from Mrs. Switt. I heard a couple of the boys groan, but she interceded.
“She only said that because she thinks Brett is cool.”
At that, Brett had the biggest grin, which made me want to rip it off his face. Before I knew what I was doing, the words just fell out of my mouth.
“You can take me home.”
No one dared say a word. The thing in my belly bounced like a lottery ping pong ball. Then one of the boys in the back broke the silence.
“Nobody wants you, moron.”
The room erupted with laughter.
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