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The Tale of the Fugitive Phantasmic Oracle by Caroline Bridges

© Caroline Bridges

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-ONE-
_______________________
Labor Day 1963
Catskill Mountains, New York
_______________________

Jim limped over the ridge, hoping to find a place to be invisible. Instead, he found trouble. Screams and shouting drew him down the wooded slope until he caught sight of two little girls in blond pigtails clinging together and backing away from two boys holding ropes and sticks. Despite the hot day, the taller boy wore a long hooded coat and boots. In his hand was a black sphere that looked like a cartoon bomb, but he passed his hand over it like a crystal ball and asked, “Beat the wenches? Or drag them to their doom in the caverns?”

The shorter guy yawned. “What's quickest? I'm starving.”

That set the girls screaming, and, without thinking, Jim ran down the slope and threw himself into the fight.

Mid-tackle, feet in the air, Jim realized this was the stupidest thing he ever did. But it was too late. Cartoon characters could stop time, could backpedal and change direction as they fell.

Jim Scott was no cartoon character.

He slammed into the taller bully with bone-crunching pain. Or maybe he missed and hit a tree. He definitely exploded, shattered into shrapnel the color of idiot would-be-hero kid. He waited for the thunder of timber against earth followed by the patter of a zillion shards of No Good Jimmy Scott, dead at twelve. He was flabbergasted to hit the ground with more of a roll and a thud, just meat and bone, probably intact. But who knew? The world was gone. All that was left was the tin can smell of adrenaline and the roaring in his ears. For a moment. Then the pain came back with a vengeance and the roar faded to silence.

Head spinning, Jim opened his eyes and tried to get his bearings. He was sprawled on his stomach on a trail through the woods just over the ridge from his new house--but it might as well have been another world, it was so different. While the western slope scorched its way through the Jell-O salads and crackly radio baseball of Labor Day, here on the eastern slope, the air was green and damp and seemed to have forgotten summer’s existence altogether. Trees were just trees on the western slope, but here they were giants that arched across distant heights, making him feel like a mouse in a green cathedral.

Behind him was the slope he jumped from, and to his left--oh crud--there stood the shorter bully and the two little girls who’d been screaming. Why were they staring like he was a monster or something? And where was the other-

Something below him moved, and Jim gasped, realizing he still lay on the boy he tackled. Dread in his heart, he looked down. And groaned. His victim had just thrashed free of their hood, revealing long blond hair, vast purply-gray eyes, and a way too pretty face. A few of his stepfather’s choicest words escaped Jim’s lips.

He’d tackled a girl.

Then the girl lurched, grabbed Jim, and he flew through the air, landing on his back in the pine needles and mud. She’d thrown him easily as a ragdoll and now towered overhead, hood thrown back, dark coat billowing in the breeze. With one boot crushing Jim’s chest, she stretched her arm across her body as if reaching for a weapon at her belt that--thankfully--wasn’t there. Not finding it, she stared down at him, looking confused.

Jim gasped for breath and stared back. His attacker was slim and in need of a haircut but had broad shoulders, an Adam’s apple, and a face that was a lot more masculine without its initial surprise. More tiger than tabby. More Tarzan than Jane. Jim was still probably about to die, but relief flooded him. He tackled a boy after all. A quick scramble and he was on his feet again, hands in fists, unable to believe he was doing this.

“Bash in his head,” shrieked one little girl, pointing at the ball, which had rolled a few feet away. When Jim and the bully just stared, she rolled her eyes. “Never mind! Let me do it!”

Jim gaped. Were even little girls savages on this side of the ridge? He squinted to see if she actually was a girl, but then he blinked out of it. His opponent was distracted. It was now or never. He didn’t want to fight, but the guy was after the girls. He deserved it.

Once again fueled by righteous fury, Jim launched himself forward and knocked the guy to the ground. Grabbing a fistful of blond hair, Jim shoved his foe’s face into the pebbles and splinters of the path. Everyone was yelling now. Then a new weight crushed Jim's back, and a strong arm locked around his neck--the shorter guy was finally joining the fight. Jim refused to suffocate or have his head torn off, though. He struggled until he had the tall guy beneath him in a similar headlock.

The three of them punched, kicked, and strangled their way down the path. They must have been rolling because both sides of Jim’s face scraped against dirt, and mulch filled his ears.

When they finally stopped rolling, the tall boy was on top, facing the sky, choking and wheezing and...laughing. In a melodramatic voice, he proclaimed, “My spleen! You've turned it to jelly.”

And that changed everything. Jim’s temper flared out and died. It was like waking up, like coming back to his body after something else had been in charge. For the first time, Jim realized how brutal his grip on the guy was. He remembered driving his knee into the guy’s back and went icy, blank, stopped breathing. His heart pounded; his mouth filled with saliva. He was going to throw up. What was going on? Did he do all that? Muscles turning to water, Jim let go, and the shorter guy wrestled free and threw Jim to the path before helping the taller boy to his feet.

The now-unhooded villain wiped at his mouth and turned, laughter fading. Mud streaked his face, but not enough to hide his expression of utter disbelief. Jim wasn't good at reading faces, but he recognized that expression because he felt that way himself.

He closed his eyes and curled up on the ground, reeling and trying to breathe. One of his bad spells took hold. In his mind, everything blinked from day into night. He saw this boy's face, but then it blurred into a nightmarish vision of a more familiar face--one with stubble and broken veins. A monster whose mechanic’s uniform and scarred fists Jim knew even better than his face. He heard muffled, phantom shouting. He felt each blow he just delivered to the boy like it was happening to him. Because, at some point, it had. Because, inevitably, it would.

And then because it suddenly was.

Kicks. Punches. The guys were attacking again. But, no, this felt different. Jim twisted, tried to sit up. The blows continued, but through his flinches, he saw the guys laughing a few yards away. Standing over Jim was the little girl who wanted him to bash in a skull with the black ball, and she was livid. Maybe she actually wanted someone to bash in Jim's head.

He tried to say something in his defense, but talking wasn’t his strong suit, especially when fists were flying, so all that came out was, “Hey! Hey! Hey!”

The girl didn’t slow her punches. “Get off my brothers!”

Her brothers. Explained all that blond hair. Unfortunately, this girl was built like her short, stocky brother, so pigtails or not, her punches were deadly.

Blocking her fists as well as he could, Jim forced words. “They were hurting you.”

For one moment, she stopped hitting him--but then she went right back to it. “You moron! It was a game! Are you nuts?”

The short brother chased away the girl and helped Jim stand. He had the blond hair and purply-gray eyes, but just a normal guy’s face, and up close Jim could tell he was older--maybe sixteen or seventeen, guessing by his faint facial hair. The other brother was taller, but clearly younger--not much older than Jim’s age of twelve. The girls were a few years younger, embarrassing as that was since one beat him up.

Jim's victim stood half-turned to go, but didn’t move, just stared sidelong at him--lofty and cool but with a crease between his brows. A tall blond statue with leaves in his long, old-fashioned hair and muddy scrapes all over his face.

“Just trying to help,” Jim muttered. “Didn't know.”

Nothing.

The short brother chuckled, though. “Looks like we have two superheroes now, eh?”

“More like two supervillains,” sulked the girl who'd hit him.

Shorter brother put on a pair of thick glasses and said, “C'mon, Amie. That's enough skull bashing.” He turned to the other girl. “Ready, Laura?” Gathering the girls, he headed down the path, calling, “Let’s go, Robin.”

The taller brother--Robin, apparently--blinked and frowned. At last, he spoke. “I believe the fable says, ‘Look before you leap,’ my dear little fox.”

Jim scowled, rubbing his filthy red hair.

Without breaking his stare, Robin scooped the ball up from the dirt. It was a toy--a Magic 8 Ball fortune teller like they advertised in the back of comic books. Still squinting at Jim, he shook the ball, flipped it over, and consulted the tiny window. A slow nod. Another sidelong look at Jim.

Down the path, his brother shouted, “Robin Oliver Bastle! Leave him alone!”

Robin glanced at his brother, but instead of leaving, he stepped closer. Too close.

Jim recoiled. He only came up to the guy's shoulder.

Suddenly, Robin shot out his hand. Jim braced himself, but Robin didn't hit him; he did something far worse: he tugged on Jim's t-shirt, which was torn from sleeve to hem, exposing his stomach and ribs. With a yelp, Jim spun away, fighting to catch a full breath. Too close! No touching! The world grew shadowy-gray spots that pulsed with his giant heartbeat.

Silence.

Jim finally turned his head and looked back.

Robin's expression softened. Tilting his head as though trying to see Jim's front again, he said, “Wow, did we do all that to you?”

“Screw you.” Jim wrapped his shirt around himself, covering the sea of cuts and bruises, most of which were scarred and faded.

Robin's eyes narrowed again. He drew himself up, shoved the Magic 8 Ball into the pocket of his newly-rumpled coat, and strode down the trail toward the others, turning back just before rounding the curve in order to scowl, as if vowing to remember. Then he disappeared from view.

Jim shuddered. His first day in a new town, and already disaster. It was his stepfather Tucker’s one rule: never get noticed.



-TWO-

Sometimes when Jim stood by his mom's bed, he felt like he was in a wax museum or looking at an old picture, straining to make it feel real, to make himself feel much of anything besides obligated.

This is James Scott's desperately ill mother. Pay respect.

Other times, like the afternoon after his fight in the woods, he needed her, just wished she'd wake up, but the pills his stepfather, Tucker, gave her every morning made that unlikely. And he wasn't sure anything could bring her back as a mom instead of a tiny shape beneath a blanket who did nothing but sleep or cough.

Carefully, Jim lifted his mother's hand from her blanket and set it on his palm, pretending the weight of it was her holding him, squeezing his fingers. He finally got impatient and squeezed hers, not caring for a moment how Tucker threatened to dismember him if he woke her up. She slept on, though, not even a twitch. Her medicine coiled around her every bit as greedily and possessively as Tucker did. Her hand didn't have much weight anyway, he thought, setting it down. It was too thin and cool. Her lips didn't smile, and her pale hair was thin beneath her scarf. Maybe it was easiest if he just let go for today. No use looking for mysterious help that wasn't there, no matter how much he needed it.

The problem was he didn't know what to look for, even if he had the time. He barely remembered her as a real walking, talking mom. Tucker hadn't let them keep any pictures from their previous life before Jim’s dad died and his mom got her lung diseases. Tucker didn’t allow anything connected with Jim’s dad, said it was bad enough Jim had the no-good Scott madness running thick in his veins.

According to Tucker, members of the Scott family never amounted to anything but brutal, slobbering thieves who stabbed each other in the back when they ran out of other victims. Tucker grew up in the town they terrorized, so he knew. Even Jim's dad, the best of the lot, failed to fight his impulses in the long run. He did something unforgiveable, skipped town with Jim's mom all but prisoner, then died in a bar fight when Jim was seven.

Jim was the last surviving Scott, and Tucker said he was lucky--that maybe without the rest of his vermin species around, he could help Jim, could train the venom right out of him. Tucker liked to “help” Jim a lot--mostly by giving him physical reminders to hold back his no-good instincts. With all those scars, Jim certainly never forgot. Not often, at least.

Sometimes, he wondered if Tucker was full of baloney, but then there'd be days like this when, acting on impulse, no thought, Jim leapt out of the bushes and attacked complete strangers.

He'd returned from the fight to find the Labor Day parties still rolling along, but the long shadows showed he was late. When Tucker stormed off that morning, Jim didn’t know if it was for a quick beer run or something longer for his new job fixing lumber trucks; Jim just took advantage and escaped, hoping he’d beat Tucker home. He couldn't believe his luck when he returned to find an empty carport and his mom’s caregiver just leaving. He’d made it.

Once inside, Jim changed into a clean t-shirt and crept into his mother's room to stare at her, to try to get some comfort or reassurance from her presence, but there was none. She was just...there. Not gone, but kind of empty. Even on days when she did wake up, she wasn't reachable. She was weak, distracted, and got upset as easily as a tiny kid. It didn't help that they were always moving from town to town. She got confused about where she was, never got comfortable in any room outside the hospital. And she seemed a little worse every time they moved to a new town.

Nevertheless, even though she wasn't really with him, Jim stayed there until headlights swept across the wall, making him realize the sun had set. It was dinnertime. Swearing, he bolted from the room, skidded across the linoleum to the kitchen sink and worked on scrubbing the dirt from his nails. He slammed the frying pan onto a burner, nicking his left hand in the process, turned on the fire, and opened the refrigerator to grab a carton of eggs. It took him a long moment, sucking on his bloody knuckle, before he could find the carton behind Tucker's beer bottles, and then there were only three eggs--Tucker's usual dinner size, unless he told Jim to fry up even more. Stomach growling, clock ticking, he darted his eyes around the refrigerator. There was nothing else but the beer, a nearly empty jar of pickles, and the stale bread he'd thrown in there to keep it from molding. Pickle sandwich again for Jim.

“Damn,” he whispered.

Sudden pain shot from the right side of his head down his throat. It was Tucker, yanking him to his feet by his ear, and none too slowly.

“I hear you cussing in my house, boy?” Tucker let go of Jim's ear and slammed the refrigerator door. He stepped so close, Jim lost sight of the burly man's blond crew cut and jowls and could only see the top button of his blue work shirt unless he craned his neck, but he wasn't sure looking Tucker in the eye was a good idea.

“Look at me, runt!” Another ripping pain as Tucker grabbed Jim's ear and forced him to raise his face. “You foul-mouthed brat. Twelve-years old and already speaking the goddamned language.”

Jim clenched his hands. “Sorry, Tucker.”

“What if your poor mama heard you?”

Jim kept his mouth pressed closed and looked at Tucker's sweaty, pink, bristly neck. He didn't shave his neck with the same precision as his head.

Tucker said, “You want her crying again, thinking she failed you? That you're growing up wild?” He leaned down, and Jim was forced to meet Tucker's eye. “That I'm not doing my job as your daddy?”

Jim knew the guttural note entering Tucker's voice. He didn't dare flinch, didn't dare move an eyelash. They were wobbling on the edge of the volcano. He made his mind go blank, detached his thoughts from the real world like lifting a needle off a record. He might be ticking inside, but it wouldn't show on the outside.

Tucker spoke in a low, gravel-rough voice. “And you call me sir.”

Needle to record just long enough to nod. Polite. Neutral.

He waited through the long, rumbling pause. It was amazing. Things were hardly ever over so fast. He was getting better at the robot kid act. Going away worked. There'd be no blood or broken-

Suddenly, Tucker's hand shot forward to seize Jim's wrist in a painfully tight grip. He twisted it back and forth in examination, then raised it. Jim waited. Would he know the difference between older reminders and the new stuff from that day?

Apparently he knew his own work. Scraping his thumbnail down one of Jim's latest welts, Tucker simply said, “Explain.”

Jim made a policy of giving the least amount of information in the fewest possible words because being upset always led to him putting his foot in his mouth, saying the worst thing possible.

“Explored the woods today,” Jim said. “Over the ridge.”

“Trees did that to you?”

“Don't be stu...” He bit the inside of his lip. Hard. Tried again. “No, some guys.” No need to mention the girl.

“East Slope boys did this?” Scorn was in Tucker's expression now. “Those pansy rich bastards?”

Jim said nothing.

Tucker snarled. “Only a Scott could get the fairy folk to use their fists. And don't you know those rich types are the worst ones to mess with? You want us having to move to some goddamned polluted city again or something?” He glanced toward the back bedroom where Jim's mother slept. “You think her lungs can take that?”

Jim's mom had been in a hospital for ages, but before they moved, her doctor put her on some kind of program called Hospice that let her come home. Tucker never told him what anything meant, but Jim glimpsed that word on her paperwork, and he figured coming home meant she must be getting better--as long as they could stay here, in this new place.

“Holy hell! Turn off that burner! What on earth are you thinking, leaving that thing on all night?” Tucker slammed a fist into the stove knob, and the flames died beneath the empty pan. He shouted a string of expletives, snarling about fires and smoke and lungs and Scotts.

Jim's welt was bleeding again after Tucker's examination. Without thinking--mind occupied by the punishment he'd receive for the stove--he put his hand over it. Tucker abruptly ceased his rant about the stove and yanked Jim's hand away, gripping his wrist so tightly, his hand went numb, throbbing.

Tucker said, “Let go. You want to play with the royalty, you wear their bloody marks with pride. Looks like they're trying to teach you a lesson, same as me. Giving you something to remind you. Learn from it!” Tucker sneered at the bleeding wound. “Fool. Just like your dad. Always thought he was better than the rest of us. Always sneaking where he didn't belong.” He flung Jim's hand away. “Killing rich kids. Cussing at your mom. Burning down the house and eating my eggs.”

“N-” Jim bit his lip before he talked back.

“It's a real red letter day. I oughta-” Tucker fell quiet.

Jim heard a weak voice. His heart stumbled. His mom.

Calling Tucker.

“Marion...” Tucker actually looked at Jim as if to share his amazement. A smile half-lit his face, then it flickered as he caught himself, no doubt remembering Jim was the enemy. He squeezed out a little more evil eye for good measure and hurried to Jim's mom's room.

“Tell her I miss her,” Jim murmured.

He rolled a pickle in a slice of bread and slunk away to eat it on the front steps before crawling under the quilt on the living room couch that doubled as his bed.

He'd been let off easy. He didn't even dare watch television, not even with the volume off. The last time Tucker heard Jim laugh while his mother was awake, he'd bruised him across the back of his legs. He said reminders of Jim upset her and brought bad memories.

Breathing quietly, Jim fell right to sleep, maybe just out of self-defense.



-THREE-

The heat endured for weeks--the hottest September in years, the locals said--but at last there came relief with rain and drops in nighttime temperatures. The neighbors flung open their windows at dusk to stockpile cool air for the days ahead. But not at Jim’s house. Tucker said leaving your windows open was like letting your underwear hang out, letting folks gawp at what was none of their business. Only his mother got an open window and an electric fan.

The stifling house made tempers crackle. September 21st dawned with Tucker breathing down Jim’s neck as he cooked breakfast. He ranted about how lucky Jim’s mother was to have one worthwhile person in her life to love her properly.

“I’m devoted,” Tucker said. “Unlike your dad. Devoted and sacrificing my all. You better thank me for not killing you on sight for bein’ a vermin runt. And you better not give me a reason to regret that!” A snarl. “Damn runt. So useless you’ll have to aim high just to be a low-down hoodlum, forget a respectable citizen!”

Jim's hands shook so hard during the tirade, he dropped an egg on the floor. That earned him a bruising reminder to pay attention to his work. Tucker stalked to the table, grumbling that at least the clumsy vermin wasn’t lacing his food with rat poison. For a moment, Jim perked up at the idea only to suffer a pang of regret when he remembered Tucker never bought poison, just traps.

When Tucker left for work, Jim fled to his mother’s room; being near her usually calmed him. Grabbing the battered copy of The Virginian a former tenant left behind, he curled up in the bedside chair and escaped into the Wild West until his newly hired jailer arrived.

The East Slope fight ended Jim's unsupervised days. Just telling him to stay home wasn't enough for Tucker anymore. He already paid the next-door-neighbor, Mrs. Sloane, to mind Jim's mom when he was at work; now she watched Jim too. Tucker's instructions were firm: Jim must never leave the house or let anyone see him. More than once, they left a town when people noticed things about Jim. He hadn't gone to school since a teacher in New Mexico noticed the scarred reminders beneath his sleeves. They also left towns when Tucker started getting lots of mail. As soon as pink envelopes stamped Past Due began arriving, Jim knew to pack his suitcase. Since arriving in the Catskills, there were no envelopes at all. Jim figured that meant it was up to him to keep them settled by not getting noticed.

Tucker said he trusted near-sighted Mrs. Sloane to notice just enough to keep him in line. The widow had two sons: Larry and Les, twins a year younger than Jim. Tucker spoke with approval about never seeing them, said that was a sign of excellent parenting. He generously granted Jim permission to talk to them if she brought them over.

Jim heard his “jailer” enter the house now, setting down her purse with a jingle of keys.

She entered the room and sang out, “There you are, dearie!” Taking Jim by the shoulders, she turned him toward the door. “You just run along outside and play now.”

He rolled his eyes.

Through his mother's window, Jim saw the twins lurking near the fence between the houses, intent upon something. Larry and Les might impress Tucker as flakes too meek to cause trouble, but what Tucker didn't know was that, although the boys looked like dusty-brown field mice, they turned into rats the moment grown-ups left.

Another thing Tucker didn't know was Mrs. Sloane believed children should be neither seen nor heard. At least not by her. According to the twins, every day since they could find their way home, she kicked them out the door at the crack of dawn. And she clearly saw no reason to ditch her successful child-rearing methods now.

Frowning at Jim’s hesitation, her voice dropped from fussy to gruff. “Go on. Get.”

A loud crack came from outside, and the birds on the gate took flight. Jim saw Les and Larry throwing rocks. With a grimace of distaste, Jim went out to join them. Tucker wanted him to be like the Sloane twins? Fine. Jim would go along, take advantage of this freedom, and try to stay out of trouble.

It wasn't easy, though, staying out of trouble. The twins idolized a couple of hoodlums down the street: Elbow and Vince. Jim didn’t understand the appeal. They were sixteen, old enough for high school, but they only went when they ran out of cigarettes and needed a lift to town on the yellow bus.

When Jim got outside, he found the twins peering at the fence, studying what they claimed was a bullet hole. Larry sneered at Les for thinking a .357 would do anything but blow the fence to toothpicks.

“Okay, then,” Les said. "Howzabout a twenty-two?”

“Know what I think about that?” Larry said.

Les raised a brow. “Not much, I'll bet.”

Larry met his eye and said, “I think, hraaaaahrrxxhx.”

Larry's belch stretched out so long, even Jim laughed. The three of them took off down the road toward Elbow's house.

Les jostled Jim. “Whaddabout you, Slim?”

“Huh?” Jim stopped laughing, trying to figure out what Les expected of him. “Burp? I can't do that.”

“I mean the bullet hole. Whaddaya think?”

“I don't know. It's pretty good.”

Larry laughed. “What are they feeding you over there, Runt? Fizzes up your brain.”

Jim bristled. Maybe he wasn't so great at following or making conversation, but that didn't make him stupid. He just needed practice. And there was nothing wrong with being short. Jim was proud he wasn’t a towering giant like the rest of the Scott men supposedly were. He didn't even have the typical dark hair--just the light reddish fuzz that survived Tucker’s buzzers. Jim did have the black Scott eyes, but they were actually green around the pupils.

Les kept snickering and echoed, “Runt.”

Jim seethed. No, he didn’t mind being short, but he sure didn’t like the twins treating him like a baby they could push around because of it. He already took crap from his stepfather; no way would he take it from kids. He refused to trail behind them like a stray dog. He pushed his way between the twins and took the lead. “All right,” he said through gritted teeth. “You coming with me to Elbow's, or are you gonna get sidetracked by another hole or patch of gravel?”

To Jim's relief, the twins shrugged and followed in his wake, seeming happy enough for him to take the reins.

They got to Elbow's place just as his mom was leaving, hair done up tall for her job serving coffee in town. Elbow sauntered over to the boys, and Larry greeted him with the same poetic belch he used earlier.

Elbow responded in kind, ending in a red-faced choke. “Almost told you ‘bout my breakfast there, I think.”

Larry and Les burst into laughter that bordered on applause, and Elbow gave them friendly slaps on the backs of their heads. Jim watched to see if freckles spread to the twins. Elbow was the kind of redhead that was so painted with freckles, you couldn't tell if he had orange freckles on pale skin or pale freckles on orange skin. Jim suspected they'd come off like grease stains and that there were scores of replacement freckles waiting to rise from beneath like bubbles in a glass of ginger ale.

Les punched Elbow on the shoulder and said, “Vince around?”

Elbow shook his head, giving them a significant look.

“Again?” Larry swore. “He oughta kill his old man.”

Elbow's face turned dark. “Hey, cool it. You listen to me and don't go messing in their business.”

“I'm not.” Larry ducked his head, ears pink. “I'm just talking.”

“Just talking just makes things worse. And it ain’t that bad.” Elbow led them down the gravel roadside toward Vince’s street, dragging his hand along a chain-link fence. “Sick of whiners. A real guy can handle their dad getting rough with ‘em to teach ‘em their manners.” Averting his face, he said, “I ain't got an old man. I wish there was someone around to be tough on me.”

“Yeah, Elbow,” Les said. “You're right. We get it.”

Tucker always said Jim was lucky to have him. Was that true?

“You don't need that anyway, Elbow,” said Larry. “You're all the dad you need. Like us. We don't need some old man, and neither do you.”

“Yeah!” Elbow stopped on the corner. “And that's the thing. Same for Vince. Why would Vince stay if things are so bad? He ain't no baby.” He tapped one freckle-covered finger against his just-as-freckled forehead. “Any guy with half a brain and a real pair can take care of himself--would do better striking out on their own instead of putting up with crap at home.”

“Kinda like your dad did, hmm, Elbow?” said a low, sarcastic voice.

It was Vince.

They were still a block from Vince’s house, but he appeared from thin air in the creepy way he always did. With his black hair, perpetual smirk, and shifty eyes, Vince could be a character in one of Tucker’s horror stories about Jim’s family.

Elbow glared at Vince, shoved his hands in his pockets, and kicked the edge of the pavement with one frayed-canvas, high-top sneaker. Jim recognized it as the same kind of shoe he wore. Same ratty condition. Come to think of it, Larry, Les, and Vince wore them too.

Elbow squinted sidelong at Jim. “Trying to read my fortune in my shoelaces or somethin'?” He kicked up a cloud of dust, making Jim sneeze.

“No.” Jim sneezed again. “Just..." He pointed. "Same shoes.”

“Friggin' Sherlock,” Vince said, “Some kind of genius there, matchin’ up shoes.” Scowling, he slapped at his pockets and pulled out an empty pack of cigarettes.

Larry said, “It's kinda the uniform around here.”

“All us Slopers got ‘em,” said Les.

Us Slopers. The twins loved teaching Jim all about this “Sloper” species he’d become just by moving here.

The town of Stonebriar was shaped like a tilted horseshoe with a mountain ridge down the center. Steep, heavily-wooded East Slope rose high above the road and was full of grand estates. From there, the road climbed to town proper at the south curve of the U, then turned the bend up into West Slope, climbing nearly to the top of the ridge before cutting westward toward the lumber mills, where Tucker worked as a mechanic. West Slope was for blue-collar folk that everybody called Slopers. East Slope families had all sorts of nicknames among the Slopers--most of them rude. Elbow called them “Mucketies from Upper Muck,” or Muckers for short. “You know. Cuz it rhymes with somethin'.” Jim figured he was destined to be a Sloper since he came complete with the uniform.

The first time Jim met the hoods, they asked why he was grounded. When they learned he attacked Robin Bastle and his brother Kris, their jaws dropped and they stared at Jim like he was an alien.

Elbow said the Bastles were the richest, weirdest Muckers of them all, other than their neighbors who owned the woods, the Mortimers. He said the Mortimers had a spooky old house like the Addams Family, but at least it was a proper house. The Bastles, on the other hand, lived in a crazy place that looked like someone dropped a couple of treehouses into a creek. That got Elbow’s goat. He said nothing bothered him more than rich people living in weird shacks like they were playing at being poor. Like it was some game or something.

Robin apparently used the name Oliver in town. Vince hated him under any name and burned to pound the guy to a pulp for having everything, being popular, and, worst, being untouchable--immune to all insults. Apparently, Oliver never showed fear--just acted like Vince was funny. Jim’s success beating up what Vince called “that pirate captain prom king” won him the hood’s respect, as did Oliver taking Jim seriously and not laughing.

Right now, however, Vince smirked like Jim was an idiot. Jim’s cheeks heated in embarrassment, but he wasn't one to grovel for favor like his neighbor twins. To cover his nerves, he said, “Stop talking about shoes. Let's go.” Go where, he wasn't sure. He just aimed toward their original target--Vince's house--and, to his relief, they all sauntered after him.

He was just beginning to feel better when they came upon a little pink house. A woman with big hair and crayon-bright makeup lounged on the porch, scratching a poodle between its ears. She winked and raised her glass.

To Jim's horror, she looked right at him and said, “Hey, young Tucker boy.”

Confused, he squinted down at himself, trying to figure out how she knew who he was.

She laughed. “Saw you when I came by to play...welcome wagon.”

Vaguely, Jim remembered having to vacate the couch one night. His blanket smelled like cigarettes afterward.

“You say hi to that sweet daddy of yours, ‘kay? Tell him it's Lucille from the lounge, and I'll see him tonight.” A wiggle of her brows and a kissy face followed, making Jim's ears burn.

He saw a flash of his mother lying like a broken doll beneath her blankets, but couldn't figure out why this woman upset him so much until Elbow hollered, “He's got a mama already, you old hag! Even if she is half-dead!”

“Can't help she's coughing up a lung, lady,” Les added. “Have some respect!”

No one seemed to notice Jim go stock still, ears ringing, hands tightening to fists to make the stinging in his eyes go away. It flickered in Jim's mind that he was about to slug Lester Sloane--and maybe Elbow, too.

He didn't have to, though.

Vince's hand shot out and shoved Elbow then knocked Les on the back of the head, sending him stumbling. “No, you show respect, you turds. That’s not how you talk about someone’s mom.”

Jim shivered at the dark, meaningful look Vince gave him. Maybe he watched too many gangster movies, but he didn't want to owe Vince any favors.

The horrible woman kept leering. As they left, she called, "Didn't say I wanted kids, you hoodlums. Neither does Tucker."

Jim could hardly walk straight. Wanted to turn and stare at the woman, but he was afraid she'd keep talking. Afraid the stinging in his eyes would turn into tears, which would be suicide in front of these guys. Hoodlums. Tucker said he wasn’t even good enough to be a lowdown hood. And, all along, his devoted stepfather was hanging out with women like “Lucille from the Lounge” while his mother was sick, alone in bed.

Was Jim supposed to learn from Tucker the Devoted? Live up to his standards?

Jim had to stop clenching his teeth before they shattered.

Behind him, Les said, "Hey, you okay, Slim?" His voice was a little too quiet, the way you talked to a little kid who scraped his knee. Not that anyone would notice a scraped knee among the scars of Jim’s reminders.

"Let's get out of here." Jim turned to Vince. "No more crap. Got your dad's truck?"

Vince absently rubbed his chest and flinched. "Pop's in a bad state today. And wide awake."

Jim saw Vince with his shirt off once and noticed unusual circular "birthmarks" about the size of a cigarette. His nose was pretty crooked, too. A guy didn't want to run into Vince's father on the rare occasions he was alert.

That just made Jim angrier. This was a messed up place. He had to get away. Far. Fast. No way was he hanging around here another minute with all the cigarette burns and makeup clowns. He'd been good to please Tucker, who he thought was taking care of his mom, but he wasn't going to help Tucker for Lucille. He’d come up with a plan to look out for his mom himself. Until then...

“I'm going to town," he told the guys. He glared at Vince. “I'll walk."

A hood was a hood, after all. He'd out-hood the hoods themselves. It was his destiny. Might as well give in and start practicing. Screw Tucker and his "Don’t get noticed." If Tucker found out and complained, Jim would tell him all about Lucille and how she'd see him that night.

Jim squared his shoulders and turned to leave, but Vince’s hand fell on his arm. Slowly, a dangerous glint in his eyes, the guy smiled and said, "To hell with my old man. I already stole the keys just in case." Motioning to the others, he took off running toward his house. "I'm taking it! We're going!"

The others hesitated for a moment, but then they barreled after Vince, whooping and hollering.

Elbow shouted, "Ya hear me, beer? I'm comin' for ya!"

Jim paused. Beer? He wasn't sure he wanted to deal with that. But to hell with it. They could do what they wanted, and he'd do what he wanted.

At the corner nearest his house, Vince stopped them and made a motion, lowering his palm. "Shut it, turds." He craned his neck toward his house. "Front door's open."

They crept up to the truck, Les and Larry snickering like idiots.

Vince took the last few steps in a gallop. "Get in.” He opened the driver’s door, climbed in, and unlocked the passenger door.

Larry told Les, "I'm riding in the cab."

Les argued, and Elbow told them to shut up.

Just then, Jim heard a hacking cough from the house and the jingle of rolling glass.

Vince’s eyes grew wide. He gestured violently. “In! Get in! Now!”

Les and Larry were so busy arguing, Elbow had no trouble stealing the cab seat himself, slamming the door behind him.

"Crap!" Larry froze in panic.

Elbow opened the door, yanked Les into the cab, and slammed the door again. Through the windshield, Jim saw Vince waving his arms, heard muffled shouts for them to get the hell in the back. Vince started to pull out, but all Larry did was gape. Another cough came from the house. Louder this time.

Now that they were all in it together, he couldn’t leave a man behind, especially not with the monster behind the screen door. Larry didn’t seem to understand about this kind of dad.

Grabbing Larry by the arm, Jim slung him toward the retreating truck. "You wanna stay here and explain to Vince's dad?"

Larry’s eyes were blank. Jim weighed leaving him behind. Why the hell shouldn’t he?

Because it might have been him getting left behind, any other time. That’s why.

Luckily, Larry snapped out of it, and they chased the truck, running so hard Jim felt broken asphalt and acorns right through his soles as he trampled them. When Vince paused at the corner, they managed to hurl themselves into the truck bed just as he pulled out again.

Vince tore out of the neighborhood and started down the twisty road to town. Larry and Jim clung to hooks in the truck bed, trying not to get flung around. When Jim looked up, he saw Elbow waving at them through the back window. He thought they might get some mercy, but the idiot began laughing hysterically, and the truck sped up. Vince lurched through turns with unnecessary sharpness and shimmied on straightaways.

Suddenly, they hit a bump, and Larry and Jim both lost their hold. They flew up then slammed back down--felt like the truck rose up to kick him in the rear. Jim lost his wits and didn't grab for purchase again, so he went rolling across the ridged metal flooring, slamming into the wheel well. Larry wasn’t as lucky. He tumbled against the tailgate, and it started to give. The old rusted heap was falling apart at the hinges.

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