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A View From the Fence
by J. (Channing) Wells
J. (Channing) Wells -- all rights reserved
 

I have a copy of my mother's wedding picture. I keep it in a plain wooden frame on very top tier of the makeshift shelf that contains, on its lower levels, such diverse and sundry items as my Honors Thesis on supply-side economic law and a crawling Angora Rose plant which I have placed there because the room is too damn drab without something else alive in it. The Angora Rose is a special houseplant to me because, no matter what you do to it, it doesn't die. Ever. I first acquired the Rose when I moved into my apartment several years back. Apparently, the previous tenant had left it there when he (or she) moved out, hoping that somebody else would take care of it. A few years ago, I was not a houseplant kind of guy. I had bought one for my dorm room (some kind of Western Jade or something) and it had shriveled and died less than a month later. This kind of turned me off to the whole concept of keeping plants, and so, rather than make any effort to take care of the Angora Rose (though I did not, then, know its precise species; that knowledge has been imparted to me over time) I simply placed it in the Dumpster and went back to the business of moving in.

Naturally, I had the dubious fortune of moving in on the very first day of the Seattle Sanitation Strike, often referred to in retrospect as the "Shit Picket;" from a Labor standpoint it was a stunning illustration of the power of "organization" to rectify the squalid and serf-like working conditions of the city's Public Works staff on a number of different fronts, including street sanitation, sewer maintenance and, of course, trash collection. For the rest of us, it just made life vaguely unpleasant until the council managed to get off their collective asses and start compromising. The Angora Rose was, for two long weeks of (get this:) Record Breaking Temperatures, at the very bottom of the largest heap of assorted household shit that my particular apartment had ever, or has since, seen. At the end of those two weeks, when I had finally gotten my furniture to where I wanted it and was finishing up the last of the in-house cleaning, I had gone, somewhat reluctantly, out to the massive refuse heap that had spilled out over the edges of the overflowing receptacle to throw away some besotten rags. I had added them somewhat haphazardly to the pile and was just about to turn around and go back in when I noticed a faint tendril of green peeping out from underneath a polyvinyl bag. The damned Angora Rose was still alive, and, what's more, was growing.

I do not normally consider myself an irrational man. But something about that scene sparked me to strangeness. Lickety-split, I was back up to my apartment and hunting through the closet for my galoshes and three-year jeans, and, after what had to be one of the weirdest half-hours of my life, I had successfully unearthed the Rose. I went out to Sam's Discount, bought it a beautiful mock-oriental pot and some really quality dirt, and, well, the rest is history.

The Rose sits in a place of honor on my pinewood shelf, but it is never allowed to go as high as my mother's picture.

It's really the only vision I have of my mother. She died long before I could really remember. Y'know, funny thing, I don't even know what she died of. It's just one of those things that no-one ever talked about. She's young, in my picture. Couldn't be more than twenty, actually. She looks absolutely stunning. Light simply pours out of her. It's a wonder the photographer managed to get the contrast right; a less-experienced man might well have captured for eternity one great glowing glare of white, overshadowing everyone and everything else in the picture. As it is, my father is clearly visible to her right. He looks good, too. That's the point of weddings. Everybody looks good.

My father is young in this picture as well, probably not more than a year older than my mother. They were, reportedly, high-school sweethearts. My father was his class valedictorian and a state champion debater, and my mother was exceptionally skilled at mathematics. Both were young, bright hopes for the youth of the future. Both were expected to enter Higher Education and both were expected to succeed. The only dark spot in their lives: me. The tell-tale bulge of my mother's abdomen is still noticeable under the dress, despite their best attempts to conceal it under lace and ribbons. I imagine that it was a shotgun wedding, so to speak, carefully postponed until after graduation. Mom and Dad had to put their dreams of higher education on hold. For my father, this was a temporary setback, as he later attended law school and became what everyone always dreamed he would be. For my mother, it was the end of the road. My father's fateful tryst with my mother was the first of a long, long line of mistakes that he made. I am the product of that first mistake.

I think the most striking thing about my mother's wedding picture is that she looks happy. Damn happy. I don't know why. Maybe she didn't know who she was marrying. Or maybe he was faithful to her. More faithful than he was to my step-mother, for instance. Or maybe she was just completely under his spell. People got like that around Dad. I could have told you that Dad was probably a second-rate debater, technically. No better than the hundreds, maybe thousands, of others in the state. It was the way he said what he said. Absolutely hypnotic. Had his ambitions been towards the military instead of towards the government, he could have been another Washington, or a MacArthur, or a Hyden-Pierce. Men would happily slaughter themselves on a word, a gesture, from their Fearless Leader. As things actually worked out, it was almost as bad.

My mother's picture and the Angora Rose are still in my apartment in Seattle. I didn't even water the Rose particularly well before leaving. I could shut the damn thing up in my closet with twelve thousand leaf-cutter ants and a Bunsen burner and when I got back it would still be alive and kicking. Even after a week. It's the perfect houseplant. Even if it is, as one of my step-sisters once commented, "Butt-Ugly." Ah, well, you can't have everything, can you.

I am walking down a street in my hometown. The street where I used to live. The sun is wandering towards sunset, and probably will get there in about an hour. Back in Seattle, it's probably not even dim yet. But I'm not in Seattle. I'm "home." Back East. Visiting what remains of my family.

"I can't tell you how good it is to have you here, Jay." My stepmother's face is still streaked with old tears, and her eyes are red from crying. Another funny thing: she doesn't look angry. You'd think that there'd be a little sense of anger, of betrayal there. Not a chance. Pure, unadulterated sad. Of course, she was under his spell too. There can be no other explanation. All of them were. My stepmom and all the little stepsiblings. They're all in quiet mourning.

Me, I don't know what to think. So I just nod to her. "It's good to be back," I lie.

"I just wish it were under happier circumstances," she says. "Do you need me to press your suit, or anything?"

I brush her off. "It should be fine, Gloria."

She looks hurt. "Jay, you can call me Mom, you know."

I nod. "Sorry. Mom."

She nods. We've never been close. We get to civil, and, well, that's about it.

"You will be up there in front of everybody, Jay... I imagine that there's going to be a lot of people there."

"I steamed it before I went, mom."

"You're sure? I mean, I could take a look at it. Goodness knows I'll be ironing Bobby Junior's things... it wouldn't be any trouble..."

"Whatever." I say. It's not worth arguing with her, tonight.

She nods, and I know it will be done. "Now. You do know that there might be... some unpleasant things tomorrow. Your father had... well... enemies. I don't want you getting hurt..."

"I know, I know. Leave it to the Police."

"I just don't want you trying to be a hero or anything."

I want to shake my head. I want to say that there are no such things as heroes, no such things as villains, just people and situations and their reactions to them. But I'm not in the mood for philosophy tonight. Besides, I'm not convinced of it myself. So I just nod vacantly and agree.

"Look at me." She commands. I blink; it's more stern than I've ever heard her sound. I comply. She speaks, slowly. "I've just lost a husband, Jordan. I've no wish to lose a son too. Be careful."

You lost Dad a long time ago, Gloria. You never had Dad. It's all been a lie, Gloria. One big huge goddamn lie. He's dead and that's the best thing that could ever have happened for you and Stephen and Cindy and little fucking Bobby Junior. Maybe now you can start living again.

I simply nod. "I'll be careful."

"Good." She says. She turns back towards the kitchen. "We're all having a little supper in here, Jay. Nothing fancy. Just some stew made up of anything I could find laying around. Care to join us?"

I shake my head. "No."

She purses her lips. "Jordan, I think that this might be a good occasion for us to... well... sort of come together as a family. I know you and your father had... difficulties. But that doesn't mean that we all can't get re-acquainted. Lord knows, I've hardly even seen you this week..."

I shrug. "That's because I haven't been here."

"I know." She shakes her head slightly, and then looks at me. "You look more like him every time I see you."

"More like he used to," I correct, blithely. Bad choice of words. I do not entirely share my father's gift of loquation.

"Jordan. What an awful thing to say."

"It's true." The damage is already done.

"Well." She says, obviously directing at me emotions of sadness, confusion, miffed-ed-ness, the whole nut. "I guess we'll see you when you get back. Whenever that is."

"Guess so. Don't wait up."

"Jordan, you had better be in at a decent time tonight. You have an important job tomorrow."

"I know, Gloria."

Pause.

"Mom, please."

"Mom."

She nods and disappears into the kitchen. Everybody else is already there, sitting down like ducks in a row. I shake my head. Stepsiblings are always hard to get to know. Especially when you haven't made any real effort to get to know them. Add to that the fact that there is about a decade's difference in age between me and the eldest of them, and you can just about call it quits, from my perspective. It'd be like chumming with the goddamn Romper Room Club.

I wander out towards the street and the coming sunset. I am walking down a street in my hometown. The street where I used to live.


A lot of people are surprised to learn that my father and his family didn't live in the city proper. To many, my father seemed like a creature of the city, his body and soul dedicated to its welfare and upkeep. It would seem almost incongruous to such people that every day my father would drive the twenty miles in and out to the nearest bastion of Suburbia that the city offered, the sleepy little bedroom community of Edgerton. But the American Dream was a powerful force in my father's life, and he'd be damned before he'd tell his chums at the statehouse that he lived anything other than the picturesque fantasy that you find in domestic women's magazines. Never mind that he drove a car that was probably more expensive than my stepmom's net financial worth, and never mind those unusually long "nights at the office" where he did godknowswhat with godknowswho. Check that -- screw the "godknows" business. Everybody was well aware of what went on. Nobody said a word. Another one of those things that no-one ever talked about.

But if my father wanted to build the appearance of the American Dream, he couldn't have picked a better community than Edgerton. As I walk, I pass rows and rows of duplexes and split-levels, each with their own beautiful Kentucky Grass yard, some with assorted large toys scattered thereon. Each perfectly kept. Some with little vegetable gardens around back. The very image of tranquil suburbia, maintained behind-the-scenes by harsh zoning regulations and ludicrous property taxes. I walk a familiar route, passing an imposing Public Safety building, a few scattered storefronts and acres and acres of suburban lawn until I come to the place that I guess I had intended to go all along: Edgerton High School. It's still much as I remember it. There's a new wing around back (modular, but what isn't nowadays...) but all in all, it looks about the same. It sits there, low and strangely imposing against the setting sun, a sprawling dark shape of careful angles, a strange cubist ground fungus growing unattended in the midst of the green lawns. Around back is the football field. From here, I can see the vague willowy shadows of the light towers. rising above the fences surrounding the field. It looks like they've put in a new PA system. That's about it. Surprisingly little has changed.

I amble up towards the front doors and give them a little pull. Locked. It shouldn't surprise me. No matter, anyway. The grounds themselves should provide more than enough memory-lane-ing for the evening.

I wander away from the doors and begin my walk. Smiling vaguely to myself, I walk to one corner of the grounds and begin counting my steps as I walk the perimeter fence. One, two, three, four, five...


"One hundred seventy-six, one hundred seventy-seven, one hundred seventy-eight, one hundred seventy-... eight and a half. Mark it, Jay."

"Marked." I carefully tally the figure on our sheet. "Shall we multiply here, or you wanna just get the pace number?"

"Just paces for now." Says Kim, my lab partner. "We'll work out the figures back inside."

"Y'know," I say, leaning on my meterstick, "Everybody else is using triangulation or whatever the hell. If Premack catches us pacing the distance, she'll kill us."

"Screw Premack." Says Kim. "You wanna do this right, or you wanna do it the mathematical way?"

I grin. Kim is not only my lab partner; she's also a friend. Has been since way back. Ever since first grade, when we shared a coat cubby together. Sure, we went through the usual "cooties" stage where we hung out separately, but for the most part, we've been inseparable since we were both little teeny rugrats. "Platonic" is such an incredibly trite term nowadays, but I'm afraid that Kim is a Platonic Friend.

"'Right' is good enough. We can fudge the equations post hoc."

"You and that legalese garbage, I swear."

"Comes with the territory," I say. Then, "This has gotta be the dumbest Physics project anybody's ever thought of. Ever."

"Leave it to Premack."

"To Premack!" I say, lifting an imaginary glass. Kim lifts her own and makes a clinking sound. We "drink." In synchrony.

Kim flops down on the ground. "This is stupid. Tell me again why we're doing this?"

"Because we want to pass." I remark.

"No. What all this is for...?"

"We are Trying..." I say, gesturing, "to hit That fence with a pneumatic rocket."

"And this is to illustrate...?"

"Principles of Projectile Motion."

"And this is going to come in handy because...?"

I smile. "No fucking clue, Kim. Maybe if we want to become artillery officers or something."

She shakes her head. "I dunno, Jay. I think it's time for another Chat."

I bite my lip. "We really should be working on this, Kim."

"No," she says, "We are going to have another Chat." And with that, she starts off towards the Tree.

The Tree is a white maple of truly gargantuan proportions occupying the clear commons area between the baseball diamonds and the football field. It predates the school facility, and, heck, probably the whole goddamn town as well. Kim and I have been coming here for aeons, even before we were technically in high-school. Kim appreciates a good tree, she's always said, and when she saw this one, she fell absolutely in love. We come back here every few weeks and have a Chat.

Kim is first up the tree. She's always been a natural at this. Artfully, she swings her leg over one of the lower branches and hoists herself up. Me, I'm a bit slower, but I always make it.

From her position well up in the branches, Kim begins the Chat.

"Obi-Wan Kenobi." She says. "Good? Or Evil?"

I grin. It's always like this. Out of the blue, Kim picks a topic. Completely at random. And we sit here in the Tree, and we Chat. Hours upon hours, sometimes. And Kim's always been a master at old films. "Good." I say, taking a firm opening stand.

"Why?"

"Intrinsically." I say. "The Force is divided into two halves: the Light and the Dark. Obi-Wan espouses the Light, ergo, he is good."

"Pretty weak." She comments.

"I know. I'm just getting started."

"Can I interject something?"

"By all means." I gesture magnanimously.

"Does Obi-Wan ever specifically note that he espouses the Light? In fact, is the 'Light' side of the force ever even mentioned?"

"Not by name, no." I admit. "But he does warn Luke away from the Dark Side."

"Okay. But is there a 'Light' side at all? Or is there just a group of organized 'Dark' Force users and, opposing them, a group of ostensibly 'light' individuals who are really just doing whatever they feel is morally right and using this compass to give a blanket condemnation to the Dark?"

"You're forgetting that we aren't really dealing with a group here. By the end of the third movie, Luke is the last of the Jedi."

"No." She says, stone-cold deadpan. "There is another."

And so on. You get the picture.

Kim is a friend.


From my position at the first corner of the field, I can see the Tree. It was going to be my very first stop. I've got a lot of memories from the Tree. A lot. But something is warning me away. Perhaps I should wait on it. After all, we probably should go in sequence here, right?

Right. This narrative has to have some sort of internal order. Nothing else about it is going to make sense.

I continue my walk. To the First Corner Hill. It's a high point along the fenced-in campus, built up along an old highway embankment, long abandoned when the orbital motorway made the concept of actually passing through Edgerton (or any town, for that matter) on the way to the city a thing of the past. The First Corner Hill has served, for generations of high school cross-country athletes, as an intensive training ground for uphill running. Football was more my style. It was the generally-held opinion of the Football Team (The Edgerton Hawks, if you must know; it's banal, trite, and absolutely perfect for the school) that the Cross-Country folks were, no offense intended, a bunch of lily-spleened pansies. I, too, held that opinion. It's sort of pointless to feel guilty about that sort of thing, however. High School is a place for learning the right and the wrong.

With that thought in mind, I climb the Hill. My breath is coming a bit hard by the time I get to the top, but the view is worth it. Here are the entire school grounds stretched before me, and some of the town as well. From the Hill, I can just barely see my house. I imagine Gloria's well on her way to finishing dinner. How many times have I sat up here, looking out at my faraway home...

Too many times.


"Jay?"

I stare. I don't acknowledge her presence. My brain is elsewhere.

"Jay..." she says, somewhat more insistently.

I finally give in. "What." I'm still not looking at her. I'm still staring at my house.

"Jay, you look like you're gonna kill somebody or something."

"Mmrph." Translation: You bet your ASS I'm gonna kill somebody, Kim.

"What's wrong."

"Bastard." I remark.

"Him?" She says.

"Uh-huh." I say. And she understands. She sits down next to me.

"Ya wanna talk about it?"

"Bastard." I repeat.

She sighs and flops back into the weedy grass. "You know, you could take the standpoint that you don't care what he thinks."

"Oh. Real smart, Kim. Just outright ignore him. Me."

"Why not?"

"Kim, he's my Dad. He controls when and if I breathe for crissakes." I pause. "He's thinking of keeping me off the team this year."

"Sucks." She says.

"Damn straight it sucks. He says that maybe I should be concentrating more on my fucking academics. Like it's my fault I'm getting a 'D' in Speech and Rhetoric. Let him try and work with goddamn Turner. No. Screw that. Dad would get an 'A' in Turner's class. He'd get an 'A' in fucking everything."

"You're not him." Kim remarks sagely.

I round on her. "Of COURSE I'm not him! Whaddaya think, I haven't tried to tell him that? I'm not a fucking Dad-Clone, no matter how much he wants me to be."

"What can I do, here?" Asks Kim.

I stand up, ignoring her offer. I steady myself, take a quick, deep breath, and scream, over the roofs of suburbia, towards my distant house. "I... AM... NOT... YOU!"

The sound echoes for some time. I grit my teeth and close my eyes. Then, Kim is beside me.

"Feel better?" She asks.

"No." I say, sullenly.

"Pleasing him means a lot to you. Doesn't it."

"How would you feel if every fucking time anybody saw you, all they could do is see that you weren't as good as your dad is? Huh? That you were a shitty student, a bad speaker, a fucking social pariah? Goddamn it, Kim, the only thing I'm good at is football. That's it. And now, the bastard is threatening to take that away too. The only fucking thing I'm good at. Just so I can work at being more like him."

A pause.

"You didn't answer my question."

I nod, then, my voice thick. "Yeah. It means a lot."

Kim smiles. "Chat?"

I look at her. "Now?"

"Why not? Looks like you could use it."

"I'm not gonna be very good at it, you know."

"All the better for me. Means I'll probably win." She grins, wickedly.

I smile, despite myself. "Not without a fight, you won't."

"Race you there." And she takes off towards the Tree. She beats me there running, and she wins the Chat to boot. Her chosen topic: "Tom Servo: Straight, Bi, or Homosexual?"

Kim is a friend.


From the Hill, it's a fast jog down to the Ditch; The Ditch having gotten that name both from its obvious geographical features and its tendency to serve as a hangout for students taking an unscheduled break from class. It was, and judging by the cigarette butts strewn about, still is, the high-school burnout gathering spot. It's simply a rock-lined drainage canal, ill-maintained, but far enough away from the public face of the school to keep it from being an eyesore. At one end is a huge old horizontal concrete sewage pipe with a rusty metal grating in front of it. If you stand on top of the drainpipe, you can get a good straight-on view of the back outside wall of Rohmer Auditorium, the High School's combination stage and assembly-hall. Rohmer Auditorium was completely refurbished several years ago, with a generous grant from my father, the philanthropist, who noted in his public statements that speech and the performing arts were too important to the full and well-rounded development of the student to be overlooked in the curriculum of the school.

That's what I hate most about my father. Even after everything he did, most people are going to remember him as a self-sacrificing martyr for the Public Good. Look at the last years of his life, for example. They did everything they could to besmirch his squeaky-clean reputation. Broadcasting those videotapes, for example. (Successfully denounced as fakes in court, by the way; my father knew how to pick his lawyers, all right.) Nothing helped. The city just fell into line behind him. He lost his last election by an impossibly narrow margin, where any other candidate would have been utterly routed.

If he had won, the city would have entered a new golden age. His vision of the American Dream would have enveloped the entire city like a holy, glowing nimbus centering around his Lordship, the Mayor. There was nothing he couldn't have done.

And, of course, an entire class of people would have been utterly decimated.

The SCAB's, of course.

It was inconceivable that I should make this walk through memory without bringing them up. My father's bitter relationship with this often-abused minority will be remembered by many on both sides as his primary "cause." It came to suffuse every facet of his life. Now, after his death, his name has become almost symbolic. To some, a symbol of hatred and oppression. And to others, a symbol of vision and sacrifice.

I bear his name. I am become that symbol. I am the eldest son, and to me, in the eyes of some, falls the burden of carrying it on.

It's a hell of a yoke to bear.

And I have coped with it by bringing it out of the level of symbol. And into the level of man. To try and see each person involved, not as a symbol or a concept, but as a human being.

And that includes my father.

And it also includes me.

It's a hell of a yoke to bear.

And I have coped with it by bringing it out of the level of symbol. And into the level of man. To try and see each person involved, not as a symbol or a concept, but as a human being.

And that includes my father.

And it also includes me.

I blink placidly at the old concrete drainage pipe.


"There's something in there!"

"What?"

"Something in there! In the pipe!"

"You're screwing me." I wander over to the Ditch, where Kim already is, peering intently into the sewage pipe. I look in. "I don't see anything."

"You're not looking, then. Look! Over there! Under that rock!"

I shake my head. "Nada, Kim. You're imagining stuff." I glance up at the flickering halogen streetlamp above. "It's getting late. I told my folks I'd be back in by 8:30. Can we just go?"

Kim keeps looking.

I start getting antsy. "Kim, my Dad is gonna kill me if I'm not back. I have homework yet to do tonight..."

She waits a moment longer, and then turns away. "Guess you're right." We start climbing back up the defile, and are almost to the edge when Kim whips back around at a faint noise, a muffled scritchy-echoey type thing. "Did you hear that?"

"No." I lie. "Can we..."

But she is back to the grating, straining to see.

"Kim!" I yell, petulantly. I am about to go down there and get her when I hear a sharp intake of breath.

"Christ on a crutch, Jay. It's Martens!"

"'Skippy'?" I inquire, walking idly down to her. "He wasn't in class today." Andrew 'Skippy' Martens misses class a lot. He has to. He's seeing a psychiatrist, rumor has it. Skippy was always a kind of twitchy kid, ever since he moved here in sixth grade. And, of course, a year ago, Skippy called in sick for about a month straight. And when he got back...

"Yes, Skippy, for cryin' out loud." Kim shouts into the tunnel. "Skippy! Is that you!"

Somewhere ahead, there is the feeble twitch of a ruined cord of flesh that might once have been Skippy's signature fluffy tail. "Oh my god." Remarks Kim. And she begins tugging at the grating.

"What the fuck is Martens doing in the drainpipe?"

"Would you shut up and help me with this, Jay?" She continues to tug at the grating. It's jammed in there pretty good, but it's not locked, so she'll probably eventually get it out. I'm not sure why she's bothering.

"You're going in there?"

She stops tugging and rounds on me. "Jay, I think he's hurt!"

"Skippy bit the hell out of Coach Hyerson last week, Kim." I state. "He's not really 'all there' anymore."

She practically growls at me. "Hyerson cornered him in the wood shop with a ball-pean hammer, Jay. He got put on suspension, remember?"

"So?" I remark. "Skippy probably isn't in too much better of a mental state right now."

She stares at me, looking incredulous. "What the hell is your problem, Jay?"

"Nothing! But why are you trying to do this yourself? Go call the police or something."

"All right." She concedes. "I'll call the police. You try and get that grate out."

"I'm not going near him."

Kim yells at me, then. "We don't have time for this!"

"Then Go!" I yell back. Kim looks pissed. She goes. I'm guessing she's going to see if she can find a phone somewhere. Leaving me to watch over Skippy.

There is silence for a time.

"H...hullo?" comes a weak voice from the pipe. It's Skippy.

"Um. Hi, Skippy. It's J.R."

"Get me out of here." The voice is calm, collected, and obviously on the verge of breakdown.

"No can do, Skip. There's a grate in the way on this end."

"That's the way they got me in here in the first place. It's loose. Just pull it." Already, Skip sounds like he's losing his cool.

I go to the grate and give it a half-hearted tug. "Stuck." I say.

Skippy suddenly has a new realization. "Jesus Christ, J.R... I'm bleeding! Goddamn it, I'm bleeding!"

"It's gonna be okay, Skippy. Kim's off calling the police right now."

"You gotta help me, J.R. Fuck... look at this blood..." Skippy is sounding more and more twitchy, and that odd foxy whimper is creeping into his voice. I wince.

"Skippy, there's a goddamn grate here. I can't get in there. Just hang on and wait for the--"

"PULL ON THE GODDAMN GRATE, YOU MOTHERFUCKER! I'm bleeding... oh, Christ..."

For crissakes. If he's gonna be a bastard about it... "Skippy?"

"...what...?"

"I'm gonna try to get this grate out, 'kay?"

"Just hurry, alright..." I don't know if it's my imagination, but Skippy is sounding a little weaker. I grit my teeth, grab the old grating with both hands, brace my feet against the embankment, and pull. It resists.

"Pull on it!"

"I'm trying, you little fuck," I gasp, through my exertions. "Keep your pants on."

Skippy complains a little more, but I shut it out. I'm pulling as hard as I can, and the grate is scraping against the concrete, but it's not coming free. I try pulling in jerks. One, two, THREE... One, two, THREE... One, two...

Crash.

I pick myself up from off the ground. "Skippy? I got the grate out."

"W'nerful. C'dja please, like, help me?" In between dialogue, Skippy's making odd pained little whimpering noises.

"Hold on." I say. And I pick my way into the tunnel.

It's not a pretty sight.

Martens, or at least, that which I assume is Martens, has been shoved rather mercilessly into a small side-alcove of the drainage pipe and has subsequently had several large bits of concrete rubble piled over him, pinning him down by one arm and both legs. Judging by the amount of blood staining the rocks about, this isn't the only thing that they did to him. A faint glimmer of sunlight from the tunnel mouth illuminates one side of Skippy's face, which bears little resemblance to anything I can remember of the geeky little fox-thing that replaced Andrew Martens one year ago.

"Jesus Christ, Skippy," I say, showing a complete lack of tact but a keen grasp of the obvious, "Your fucking face's been ripped off."

Skippy does not respond. His jaws are twitching at the open air, and he's gone all the way over to making weird animal noises. Skippy has gone bye-bye.

"Skippy! Stay with me here, bud. The cops are gonna be here any minute..."

Skippy does not acknowledge me. "Skippy!" I say again, louder this time.

"Ymrfrs..."

"Skippy! You functioning there, kid? How's the brain?"

"Brain's... um... brain's fine, J.R. Resta me... um. Kinda shitty."

"I imagine. People'll be showing up soon." I say this last with a little bit of worry. Surely, Kim should have been able to find a phone by now... how long has it been? I haven't even been looking at my watch...

"J.R... I'm bleeding here. You gotta help me."

A bit of uncertainty creeps into my voice. "Whad'dya need?"

"Need... you to come in here... stop me from bleeding..."

"Ambulances are on their way, Skip..." I protest...

"You just gotta help me put pressure on it... at least clear the rocks away, or something..."

I don't move a muscle.

"Christ, J.R., get the fuck in here!"

I still don't move.

This is where time slows...

Okay. Everything we know about SCABS indicates that it is an airborne viral agent, right? That's what the people at the CDC say, at least. But let's just look at it, for a second. I mean, this is some sort of weird alien microbe that violates every principle we thought we knew about cellular stability, conservation of mass / energy, RNA / DNA / Protein interactions and... heck, we might as well just re-write the biology textbooks from scratch. And the people at the CDC are telling us that they understand this thing enough to tell us precisely how it spreads? This is millions of years of completely alien evolution, here. It's like freaking Australia must have been to the Brit colonists. Worse. We're not even dealing with common ancestry here. And that stuff they say about most of us being unaffected by the virus is a freaking joke, if you ask me. The Flu is coming up with new strains of itself all the time. Eventually, if we don't wipe it out first, It'll probably come up with a way to mutate the hell out of every man, woman and child on the planet. And yes, it principally may very well be an airborne pathogen. Hell, I'm probably more at risk just by being here in a semi-enclosed space with him. But who's to say that chances of exposure do not become exponentially greater with physical contact? Or worse, what about bodily fluids? People said you couldn't get AIDS from kissing someone, and then they figured out if you had been doing something so insignificant as flossing you were at risk because of the tiny lesions to the gum line. How do I know that I don't have a cut somewhere on my hand that I didn't even notice? That I can't even see? This is a really teeny microbe, here... it could get in through cuts I wasn't even aware of. Did I scrape my hand on the grate when I pulled it out? Most likely. What if Skippy loses it again and bites me? Geez, wouldn't have to have a tiny cut there. Big freaking open wounds. Not to mention... all... the... blood... around...

I realize that I have never touched Skippy Martens once since he acquired SCABS one year ago. Not once.

I am utterly paralyzed.

"HELP ME!"

The one thought that keeps running through my head, over and over, on continuous feedback loop is, "Oh, god. I don't want to end up like him."

"JESUS CHRIST, J.R.! HELP ME ST...t...t...."

Skippy's brain goes away again. He begins chewing at himself. It's not pretty.

No word escapes my lips. I can't move. I'm hardly breathing.

Oh, god. I don't want to end up like him.

What would my Dad think...


"And I think that this community can learn an important lesson from the case of Andrew Martens. All in all, this was an extremely regrettable series of circumstances. First off, it is my opinion... and many others in this room share this opinion, I know... that Andrew Martens was not in good psychological health after his bout with SCABS, and should not have been re-introduced so hastily back into the public school system. The intentions behind this decision were noble, granted, but in practice, it failed utterly. Many of Andrew's classmates have reported him engaging in socially inappropriate behaviors, both in and out of the classroom environment. These included, but were not limited to, indecent public exposure... the soiling of classroom facilities... incompatible social behaviors... and, of course, inappropriate physical behaviors towards his fellow students and the faculty, culminating in his attack on Mr. Hyerson last week. Mister Hyerson cannot be with us to--"

A voice from the seats. A woman stands. She's in her forties, lean and haggard looking, wearing a pair of glasses on a chain around her neck. "My son was not at fault for that, Robert. You know very well that he was acting in self-defense."

The man at the podium makes a calming gesture. "Mrs. Martens. Please. Whether or not your son was provoked to violence is not really the issue here. The issue is how he responded to that hypothetical provocation. Now, Mister Hyerson is a well-loved member of the Physical Education and coaching staff here at the school, and the precise events of the fourteenth have yet to be officially determined. But regardless of that eventual decision, it is important for us to remember that Andrew Martens responded to what he perceived as a threat by lashing out with his teeth and claws against one of our faculty members. Is this sort of behavior a risk that we want to expose our student body to? After all, if one of our students came to school wielding a gun, or a knife, he would be asked to leave, yes?"

A few murmurs of assent from the assembled crowd.

"And yet, through an regrettable oversight on the part of the board, we have allowed a student who posesses not only a set of weapons equally dangerous, judging by the severity of Coach Hyerson's wounds when he was admitted to the Emergency Room on the fourteenth, but also the unbalanced mental state required to use such weapons in harmful, perhaps deadly, assault on what may be, in the future, extremely limited provocation. We cannot, in good conscience, as parents and educators, allow this state of affairs to continue. We cannot let our children, the most precious of our commodities, be exposed to this violence. Edgerton is a safe community. We have always prided ourselves on that. Ladies and Gentlemen, I work for the City government. And every day, when I drive into work, I see more and more atrocities that continue to flourish within the city limits that I am unable to correct, regardless of my efforts. And every day, when I drive home to my wife and my loving children, I am reassured that here, at least, in Edgerton, my children will be safe from some of the horrors I've seen in the City. We must keep Edgerton this way. We must keep Edgerton safe!"

The murmurs of assent become louder. Mrs. Martens calls out again. "You're talking about safety in Edgerton, Robert. Tell that to my son. He might never recover from this!"

"Exactly." Says my father. "Exactly, Mrs. Martens. We need to keep Edgerton safe for everyone. 'Normal' and 'SCAB' alike. Your son is a tragic example of the decay that is already present in this community. And that is why I, and a number of other concerned parents here, are proposing mandatory home education for those children who are incompatible with the complex social ramifications of the public school system."

"At the Board's expense?" Inquires one of the more pragmatic School Board members.

My father smiles, gently. "No, Gordon. In actuality, to show my goodwill for these victims, I, along with some of the other members of the community with whom I've spoken, am going to be setting up a trust fund specifically dedicated to the home education of these 'special' children."

Mrs. Martens speaks again, utterly livid. "Robert, what you're proposing goes against over a century of civil rights legislation and base morality to boot. My son has the right to go to the public schools and not be forced into becoming a quarantine case."

"I know how this must feel, Mrs. Martens. But I think if you take a moment, step back and take a rational look at this, you'll realize that this is the best solution on all fronts, both for Edgerton High and for your s--"

"I can't believe I'm hearing this!" Mrs. Martens turns to the assembled School Board. "I can't belive that you're letting him say this! I can't believe you're even listening to him!"

"Mrs. Martens," says the pragmatic Board-member who previously spoke, "Could we please try and keep the outbursts to a minimum?"

"I will not keep anything to a minimum! We're re-entering the Dark Ages here! This suggestion deserves the outrage of everyone in this room, but I'm not seeing it! Nothing! From any of you! Don't you realize what this means?"

"I'm sorry you feel this way, Mrs. Martens." Says my father, the peacemaker. "Obviously, there's going to be some dissention, here. Mrs. Martens is vehemently opposed, and, I respect her opinions. But for the rest of you, who are still undecided as to what to believe on the issue of Andrew Martens's mental competency to continue public school, I'd like to ask my son, Jordan, to come up here."

The sick feeling enters my stomach again. My cue. I walk hesitantly up to the front of the auditorium to stand beside my father.

"My son, as most of you know, was one of the first to come across the aftermath of this tragedy. He witnessed Andrew's behavior at the scene of the attack first-hand. Jordan, if you would, tell the committee what you saw on the twenty-second."

I stammer a couple times. "Well. Um. Skippy was... like... trapped under some rocks. And... it... um... looked like he had tried to... um..."

I pause. My father looks at me expectantly, waiting for me to sock it to the viscera, just like he told me I should, when he invited me along to this meeting. Damn it. I don't want to do this. Skippy's mom is staring daggers at me. I can feel her hatred. But nothing, nothing is going to make me screw up...

...in front of Dad.

"He looked like he had tried to chew his own arm off." I hear the slight coughs, the intakes of breath, the mutterings. I think I'm going to throw up. "Maybe to get out from under the rocks, or something. I don't know. All I know is that, by the time the ambulances got there, he had practically chewed it all the way through."

"Like a fox in a trap." Finishes my father, driving the knife home.

Dead silence.

I'm going to be sick. It's not just an expression. I can already feel it coming. I stumble away from my father's side and run clumsily up the aisle to the door.

Dad doesn't even follow, doesn't even leave the podium. Not even a check to see what's wrong. The last thing I hear before the auditorium doors slam shut behind me is Dad's mesmerizing voice, saying, "As you can see, the sight of this disturbed my son very profoundly..."


I realize after a few moments that I've closed my eyes. I'm not exactly sure why. The pictures are all inside my head, now. Looking away can do no good. And I can't forget. I mustn't forget.

Skippy lived. That much is good, at least. Unfortunately, he never was able to really take advantage of the SCABS Home Education Fund that my father and his associates dutifully set up when the Board near-unanimously voted to accept his proposal. Skippy was pretty far gone. Last I hear, his parents were working hard just to get him back to basic human cognitive capabilities. Something about him just snapped that day.

Skippy's mom protested the Board's decision, threatening to take legal action and to bring it all the way to the level of the Supreme Court, if needed, to insure the rights of the other SCAB children of Edgerton to have a government-sponsored public school education. She never made it that far. Every action she took was faced with a curious lack of sympathy wherever she tried to go. Moreover, she was mysteriously and inexplicably fired from her job, and to top it all off, her home was extensively vandalized. Many of the marks of vandalization bore the tell-tale White Circle of the Edgerton branch of the Humans First movement. Whether or not my father was responsible for any of this, or all of this, I do not know and can not say. Yet another one of those things that no-one ever talked about.

I keep thinking about Skippy. I mean, he was pretty rational there, right when he started out. Maybe if I had got to him before he realized how badly he was bleeding... maybe if I had gone right to his side, lain my jacket over him, helped him bind his wounds a little... pulled some of the rocks off him... all just little things, really, nothing more than the professionals would have done in a matter of minutes when they eventually showed up. Maybe, in those few critical moments, what Skip's dangerously fragile sanity needed was to have the absolute and concrete certain-sure knowledge that, yes, there was someone there that cared about him and that things were going to be okay.

In short, maybe if Kim would have been there, things would have turned out differently.

Kim is a whole 'nother can of worms. But we'll get to that. One sin at a time, Jay. One sin at a time.

With one last glance towards the drainage pipe and Rohmer Auditorium silhouetted behind, I climb up the steep rocky slope of the Ditch and out into the sunset Field beyond.

With one last glance towards the drainage pipe and Rohmer Auditorium silhouetted behind, I climb up the steep rocky slope of the Ditch and out into the sunset Field beyond.


"All right. Before we begin, I want to make it absolutely clear that this is a general announcement. It is not directed at any one or any group of you in particular. This is a note that was given to me this morning by Principal Mandley, and he directed that I read it to all squads before practice begins this evening." Coach Garrick, Coach Hyerson's last-minute replacement for the duration of Hyerson's suspension, clears his throat. Keeping Hyerson off the coaches' bench was an almost universally unpopular decision, for all concerned. Hyerson was a good coach. Yes, he could be merciless and unforgiving, but you never doubted for a minute, even when he was chewing you out in front of the entire squad, that he honestly believed that you could do better. That you were not reaching your full potential. That there was untapped power still waiting to be used, deep within the very core of your being. It is because of Coach Hyerson that I have reached the level of success in this sport that I have. And that level is considerable. I am a national-grade high-school defensive back. Already, still early in my senior year, some state colleges have sent recruiting agents to watch the Hawks, interested, partially, in my performance. Afterwards, they would invariably make casual inquiries as to my future collegiate plans. Dad always said that I should hold out for more than a state school, though. "If you can't get into a decent college on your grades," he would say, in that disparaging way of his, "at least you might be able to get in on your sports." And so, the answer has always been, "I'm still not sure." But I tell them I'm flattered that they're interested. And all of this is due, in part, to the dedication and inspiration of Coach Steve Hyerson.

Two weeks ago, Coach Hyerson cornered Skippy Martens in the wood shop and beat seven different kinds of shit out of him before Skippy freaked out and practically took out his jugular. Mandley, in turn, promptly suspended our favorite Coach. Angry phone calls flooded Mandley's office, demanding that Hyerson be reinstated, at least until Homecoming, about a month and a half away, but Mandley remained firm.

So, yes, for those of you who are reading that and blinking incredulously, it is possible to take a moral stand in Edgerton. But it isn't easy.

Coach Garrick begins reading from Mandley's missive. "'As most of you are already well aware, these past weeks have seen a number of unfortunate events for Edgerton High. Most of these same unfortunate events have centered around one Andrew Martens, a Senior-Year Honors Student here at Edgerton. Two days ago, Andrew Martens was rushed to the Emergency Room after he was found brutally savaged and left grievously wounded in one of the drainage canals.'"

Garrick pauses, then continues. "'I have no wish to point any fingers at this stage of the investigation. But I will tell you that the sort of behavior that we have seen in the case of Andrew Martens is utterly reprehensible, and will not be tolerated in this school or in this community, as long as I, for one, am a member of both. Furthermore, if any of you receiving this missive have any information whatsoever on this act of senseless violence, please relay that information to myself or any other appropriate school official. Absolute confidentiality will be enforced, and no questions will be asked. Thank you for your time.' Short and sweet, gentlemen. Any questions?"

No-one speaks. I do have a question, but I'm holding back on it for the moment. My question is--why are we being singled out, here? I mean, does Mandley actually think that it was one of us that did it? I find that incredibly insulting, actually. Mandley gives a special message to Garrick to read to all of us specifically and then implies that he's not pointing fingers? Bullshit. If anything, it's the parents that are more pissed off than we are. Sure, losing Hyerson is a blow, but we have more than a month to work ourselves up for Homecoming. We've got at least two more matches, in the meantime, to get used to Garrick's style, and so most of us are taking this pretty calmly. I can't think of a single person on any of the squads that would sink so low as mauling Skippy just because...

I am distracted from my train of thought briefly by a late yellowjacket which zips across my field of vision. In the process of waving it away, my eyes wander towards the nearby JV squad. And I notice something.

Stebbins is Grinning.

And it's not a nice grin, either. It's a wicked little thing, almost inhuman. It's accompanied by a faint, almost inaudible, chuckle.

Good Christ.

I don't even know what he's grinning at. Maybe he's remembering a funny thing somebody told him today. Or maybe he's got a soiree planned with one of the cheerleaders, or maybe he did particularly well on a difficult exam today and is relishing the good, wholesome feeling of academic accomplishment.

Bullshit. He's as guilty as hell. You can see it in the eyes.

Stebbins! Well. I guess I would have expected it of him, the bastard. Quickly, I correct myself. If I would have had sufficient time to think about it, I probably would have pegged Stebbins. He's always been a vicious little shit. Spent some time in Detention this year, I recall. Not a very good player, either. He gets too caught up in the game. That's why he's on the JV squad. That, and the fact that he's a Sophomore. I shake my head. I don't have any real proof, or anything. Not even worth telling anybody about. But still, I feel a little odd at seeing that grin...

I am considering possible courses of action when my gaze, in the process of returning to Coach Garrick, becomes distracted by Brian Stockmann, the Varsity squad's first string quarterback and, thus, de facto team captain. Stockmann is everybody's All-American. Tall, handsome, white-blond in the classic Norse style with a physique to match. He's charming, popular and gets reasonably good marks. He's laid some of Edgerton's Finest, or so I hear tell. His father owns the local Pharmacy.

And at this very moment, Brian Stockmann is staring at Stebbins.

He mouths the words, "Shut the fuck up."

And Stebbins does. The grin vanishes, the chuckle stops.

Brian Stockmann nods to Stebbins and returns his attention to Coach Garrick.

...jesus god...

Okay, okay, I quickly rationalize. Brian is just trying to be polite here. He heard Stebbins sniggering back there at what seemed like an inappropriate moment, i.e., Garrick telling everybody how Skippy got maimed and left for dead. He found this to be very rude, and so looked back at Stebbins and told him to shut up, as he (Stebbins) was being disrespectful to both Skippy and Coach Garrick with his behavior. Stebbins, realizing his faux pas, yielded to Brian's superior moral ground and stopped.

Or...

Brian could be trying to cover his ass. Both of their asses.

And then, I realize that if Stebbins was in on this, and Brian was too...

Suddenly, I feel very alone.

I look around at the rest of my team. And in one brief, sickening moment, everything I thought I knew about each and every one of these people is called into question. And I realize that, at the end-all-be-all, I didn't really know any of them at all...

Elapsed time: Five Seconds.

"All right, if there are no further questions, let's MOVE!"

And practice begins.


The Field. Now here's a spot for memories. Naturally, to keep the groundskeepers happy, most of our actual practices took place on the Field. The Stadium was reserved, principally, for the games themselves. I always liked the fact that we held practices outside of the Stadium. It made everything seem so much more real when we finally got there and actually had to perform in front of the student body. The glare of the lights, the roar of the crowds; you were instantly transported to a different world, a world where anything was possible, a surreal dream-state of athletic prowess. But the Field was where all the actual work took place.

I futzed that practice, by the way. Something about having your entire view of your own little high-school world bent in fifteen different places and handed back to you on a bed of lettuce is not conducive to good football technique. I had to quit the field early, at Garrick's request, to go off to the stationary bikes for the remainder of practice. Brian Stockmann joined me a few minutes later, wondering if there was anything seriously the matter with me, expressing concern for my well-being. I told him no, that I had done poorly on an exam that day (not a lie), that my concentration was just a little bit screwed up because of it (stretching it a bit) and that everything was really okay (utter bullshit.) He smiled, grabbed me around the shoulders, told me how much I meant to the team and told me if there was anything he could do, just let him know. I told him thanks. He left.

And as I sat there, pedaling my life away in the hour or so that followed, I kept wondering to myself why exactly I would let Brian Stockmann pat me chummily on the shoulder but wouldn't stoop so low as to actually touch a bleeding Skippy Martens.

Why, SCABS, of course.

And as I pedaled, I naively vowed that, in the future, I would take a better view towards all of this. Would I rat on Stockmann? No. I mean, what good would it do anyone? Skippy had already taken as much damage as he was going to get. Relaying my suspicions to Mandley (and I had to remember that these were just suspicions; after all, I had no clear, solid facts to speak of) would just end up with everybody being more pissed off because they would be losing not only Coach Hyerson but also their star quarterback for the Homecoming game. And besides, I was sure that somebody'd find out who spilled the beans eventually. I'd probably get thrown off the team or something, and then I could just kiss my hopes for a football scholarship good-bye. Adding it all up, it looked like relaying my suspicions would do more harm than good. But, I promised myself, in the future, I would definitely become more open-minded towards the reality of SCABS in the school. And, furthermore, I assured myself that if I had heard even inklings of the attack on Skippy beforehand, I would have dutifully reported everything to the proper people so that such awfulness could have been prevented.

So, as you can see, I was quite good at this. Rationalization is an acquired talent, and a really good blame-denial can be a work of art onto itself.

Sometimes I wonder where things started to go wrong...

Across the Field, it's a broad, flat walk up to the Second Rear Corner. From here, you can see all the way along the perimeter fence to the Third Corner and Piergeron Stadium. From here, I also used to be able to see Kim's house. She lived pretty close to the High School; that was why we always used to hang out on the campus before our time. I try to think back, trace the streets and the lot-lines in my mind, to where it used to stand. I think that I mange to figure out where it was. It's amazing what a few years will do to your memory. Anyway, the lot seems to be currently occupied by a pleasant-looking yellow modular duplex, no different from any of the thousands of others in this town. Another little pre-fab box, plopped down in the charming little community we call Edgerton, fresh for another family to begin their own experience with the Suburbial American Dream. Paradise with aluminum siding and a clapboard roof.

The very spot where Kim used to live...


"Hey, Mrs. DeJong. Kim home?"

Kim DeJong has the coolest house in the entire neighborhood. They've placed its date of construction at circa 1920; well over a hundred years ago. It was built, originally, for a wealthy doctor who emigrated here from Switzerland roundabouts that time, constructed specifically to his exacting standards, which meant that it was the 1920's version of sheer opulence and ease-of-living. All of the cutting-edge conveniences that this era offered built right in. In its time, it served a variety of offices; an apartment building, a church parish-hall, even, briefly, a Laundromat. The last business to use the space (a bookshop) folded in 1990, whereupon it was bought and completely refurbished, from step to sternum, by a hideously rich and surprisingly young telecommunications company executive with an interest in restoring historical places. He was so enchanted with the place, once done, that he decided to made it his permanent home. He was Kim's father. It was in this house that he met Kim's mother, in this house that the post-wedding reception was held, and in this house that Kim was conceived.

For kids growing up, it was a marvelous place. Once you had played Hide-and-Seek in the DeJong house, there was no settling for second-best anymore. We even discovered a secret passage in the basement, one day. Kim's father came down and told us that Dr. Feinn, for whom the house was constructed, was a little on the eccentric side, and so the presence of a secret passage in the basement didn't surprise him one bit. With his permission, we followed it to its terminus; an old maintenance grating in a nearby park where Kim and I would often play.

For a nine-year-old, this is the epitome of cool.

Gloria, in her overly-concerned stepmom-y way, would sometimes tell me that I spent more time at the DeJong house than I did at my own. This was, probably, technically true, unless you count sleeping. And hell, we did some of that together, too. Mysteriously, boy-girl sleepovers tend to end at about age thirteen, but prior to that, we got our share, pitching up a tent of blankets on the back porch and Chatting until the cows had not only come home but also, quite probably, gone to sleep as well. And, after a couple years, when Kim showed no signs of letting up the pestering, the DeJongs eventually gave in and installed a basketball hoop above their driveway. Kim always whups my ass, but I still play with her anyway. And that is why I am here today, staring at...

...a surprisingly disturbed-looking Mrs. DeJong.

"Um... sorry... did I... like... come at a bad time or something?" I respectfully stop bouncing my basketball on the porch.

She is staring at me. I begin wondering if my fly is down or something. "Mrs. DeJong?" I ask, hesitantly.

"Jay. I'm... sorry." She says, in her faint accent. "Kim is very sick. She can't do anything with you today." Mrs. DeJong is still fixing me with that odd look. I can't quite place i--

Fear.

Mrs. DeJong is very, very afraid.

"Oh." I say, shakenly, trying to recover the conversation. "Can I see he-"

"No!" And then, after a moment, "No, Jay. Actually, it probably would be better if you went home."

"I can't even talk to her?"

"We're taking her to the hospital as soon as Paul gets home."

I sit down, unconsciously, on the charming old porch-swing. "What's wrong with her?" I say, foundering in disbelief.

Mrs. DeJong grits her teeth, and that expression that looks strangely like fear crosses her features again.

"Nothing, Jay. Just go. Please."

"Could you... like... erm... tell me later?"

"Perhaps." She says. And waits. I pick up my cue and my basketball at the same time and walk away. Mrs. DeJong disappears into the house.

Thirty seconds later, I am in the process of creeping around back of the house, to the tree that I know is there. Not quite as big as our Tree over in the schoolyard, but a sizeable one nonetheless. Kim loves the fact that she has a tree outside her window that you can climb down. Just like in all those old movies, she said, where the heroine goes off on some wild adventure that her parents have forbidden her to take by climbing down a tree outside her window. She's used it many a time in many a curfew violation, with me as her ever-so-willing accomplice. Still trying to be as sneaky as possible, I lurk over to her tree, get a good grip on the lower branches, and begin the effortful process of climbing, which Kim always makes look so easy.

And then, I am at the level of her window. The drapes have been pulled, but there is a tiny crack where they were not closed all the way.

I look in.

There, lying upon tattered bedclothes, is...

Well, okay. You've guessed it. I mean, that's where this story was headed anyway. Hearken to the master of Foreshadowing here.

I stay in that tree for a long time. Long after Kim's father comes home with the car. Long after the both of them enter Kim's room and gaze upon that... thing... in... her... bed...

That... thing...

Anyway. I stay in that tree long after Kim's folks have left her room and returned with a long, hooded winter coat that looks ridiculously large for her... long after they have... well... virtually wrapped her up in it... so that nothing would show... long after they have gotten her on her feet... such as they are... and have lead her groggily downstairs, out the door... long after the car has departed in the distance, off in the direction of the Highway.

I just sit there. Hanging around in a tree in a yard that belongs to my friend Kim, just because there's nothing better to do, nothing I want to do, nothing that can possibly be done, ever, anywhere in the world, ever again.

Kim is a SCAB.

I just sit there. Hanging around in a tree in a yard that belongs to my friend Kim, just because there's nothing better to do, nothing I want to do, nothing that can possibly be done, ever, anywhere in the world, ever again.

Kim is a SCAB.


Kim's official picture does not appear in my Senior Yearbook. No mention of her is even made in the list of Graduating Seniors. I caught one picture of her, slipped into the "photographic scrapbook" section, a sort of collage of various human-interest shots pieced together by the yearbook staff. It was a picture of Kim, dressed for our Junior Prom. Just to be difficult, Kim decided that instead of doing the traditional dress-up thing, she was going to go in her favorite black trenchcoat and fedora, sporting a pair of sunglasses to boot. Upon arriving, completely dateless (as usual), she discovered, to her delight, that they were handing out corsages at the door. The photo that I have is of Kim, trying vainly, in a lackadaisically cool fashion, to pin the corsage through the thick fabric of the trenchcoat. I love that photograph, and the yearbook editors must have loved it too. It was perfect Kim material. Completely unconventional, totally laid-back, delightfully stupid, utterly classy. I still remember the way that she made all the clique-squad girls with their hundred-dollar-a-night dresses look totally pedestrian, all in the way that she wore that coat. How she made it look like they were the ones that were overdressed and that she was the one setting the norm. I told her that. She just grinned and made a friendly comment about how nice my shirt was, but she didn't really mean it. I couldn't have cared less. All that mattered for me on that night was remembering how she looked. So that I would always be able to recall this one magic night where Kim DeJong and I came independently and date-less to the Junior Prom, where we left independently and date-less from the Junior Prom, but somewhere in the time in between, after joking incessantly at how we both really needed to get a better social life, shared one, single, slow dance. Together. Just friendly, you understand. But we danced. The song was "Gardens of the Sky," an aughts-nostalgia- like piece written and performed by the then in-vogue Top 40 Celtic-Techno group known as "Sanctuary," and I kept running into her shins because I couldn't (and still can't) successfully dance anything more complicated than the Hokey-Pokey. But it was a dance. My first and only.

Two months into our Senior Year, Kim came down with SCABS. After finally pulling myself out of that tree in her yard and dragging myself back to my house, I idly paged through Grohler's Encyclopedia of Wildlife, trying to find some way to quantify what I had just seen in an attempt to deal with it. At first, I wandered through the section on raccoons, because, superficially, that's what she looked like, but nothing there seemed quite right. So I ended up flipping and flipping and flipping until I finally got to the section on Africa, where it made mention of a primitive and vaguely coon-like primate known as the Ring-Tailed Lemur, native to Madagascar, which had finally become extinct in 2014 due to over-forestation of its homelands. The entry referenced me to a particular photographic plate, and yes, that was it. That's what Kim looked like. She was still pretty much the same size as she used to be, maybe a little bit smaller if anything, but that was it.

And, just like that, Kim DeJong didn't go to my school anymore. Nor did she ever set foot upon the grounds of Edgerton High again.

Or at least she wasn't supposed to.


Sunset again. High clouds to the West signal a possible storm in the making, but right now, the sky's a wonderful clear-orange hue. I am sitting in the Chatting Tree, amongst the frost-burned bright leaves. Above me, looking rather absurd, is a large, human-sized female Ring-Tailed Lemur wearing a heavy black trenchcoat. From beneath the coat, you can just barely catch a glimpse of a ridiculously long and fuzzy black-and-white striped tail. The whole thing would look positively silly if you didn't look closely at the lemur's black-masked face and see the devastated, haunted expression thereupon. Neither of us is supposed to be here. My Dad would kill me if he knew I'd been hanging out with Kim, and Kim's folks want her to have as little contact with my family as humanly... or whateverly... possible. Funny how that works out.

"How does it feel?" I ask, idly to break the silence that has reigned between us thus far.

"It feels like I've suddenly mutated into a Ring-Tailed Lemur. Were you expecting something different?" Kim's voice sounds hollow, dead.

"Ah, yes." I quip, in an attempt to lighten the mood. "I know that feeling well."

"You do not." She snaps.

"Sor-ree. Bite my frigging head off next time, whydontcha."

"I just might." She says, mockingly. "You never know."

"Sheesh, Kim. I didn't sneak out past my Dad just to have you yell at me, here."

"Sorry." She says, sounding genuinely apologetic. "What did he say?"

"He said that I'm pretty much a grown man now, and that I have to make my own choices, and that includes in the area of who I hang out with." I swallow. "He said... he said he knew I'd make the right choice."

"Bastard." She says, almost as a casual observation.

"I think that I am making the right choice here, Kim..." I say, trying to make her feel better.

"Yeah. Not the 'Right Choice' your father meant when he said that, though."

"He's just looking out for my welfare. He doesn't hate you... people..." I realize, too late, what I just said. Thankfully, Kim doesn't pick up on it.

"Pull the other one, Jay. It's got bells on. Your father is the most dedicated anti-SCAB activist this district has ever known. Thing is, it never really mattered to my folks before now. Of course, now, they think you're working for the enemy."

"But, that's just the thing. My dad doesn't hate SCAB's. It's just..." I gesture, trying to think of the right word, conscious that Kim is staring holes in the back of my skull. "I mean, he doesn't hate... you... personally--"

Kim cuts me off. "Mm hm. C'mon, Jay, why don't you tell me how SCAB's are just as much a victim of this as everyone else is. How it's so fucking unfortunate, yet, regrettably, necessary, to keep me and Skippy and whoever the fuck else from graduating because we can't be trusted to be within fifty yards of a 'normal' person without biting their nuts off or something. Come on. Buy into the lies. You're almost there."

"SHUT UP!" I explode at her, suddenly. "Just shut up, Kim. You have no Idea."

"I have no Idea? I have no Idea? Who's the goddamn SCAB here, Jay? Huh?"

"Look, I'm sorry, all right? You're obviously not in the mood to talk right now, so, why don't I just go or something." I swing my leg off the branch and am about to drop to the ground, when Kim speaks.

"Stay." It's not a command. It's a plea. "Jordan. Please. Stay. I can't... do this..."

I swing my leg back up. "I'm staying." I say, trying to sound as compassionate as I can.

"Thank you." Her relief is almost painful. There is silence, again, for some time.

"Wanna have a Chat?" I remark, after a while.

"What's the topic?" She asks, unenthusiastically.

"Um. I dunno. You're the one who always picks the topic, Kim."

"I'm not in the mood."

"Oh-kay..." I say, and trail off.

More silence.

"I got one." She says, suddenly. "Kim DeJong: Exactly how ugly is she, anyway?"

"She's not." I say, bravely.

"Not a possible stand to take for this debate, Jay." "

I don't care. I submit that the resolution is flawed, if it assumes Kim's ugliness."

"Kim's ugliness is an empirical fact, Jay. All we need now is to determine the degree."

"You're stating your ugliness as being an empirical fact." I point out. "All right, let's concede that, for the moment. So, as long as it's an empirical fact, it can be operationally defined, right? And, since it can be operationally defined, we've answered the question posed in the concept statement, thus rendering the entire debate null and void. I submit we draft a new resolution and start over."

"And your proposed resolution is?"

I pause to collect myself.

"Resolved: Kim DeJong is just as beautiful today as she ever was."

Silence, from above. And then, the sounds of soft crying.

"Kim..." I say...

"I need a hug." She states, matter-of-factly, despite her tears.

A faint twinge of worry at the thought of physical contact. I try with every ounce of my strength to suppress it.

With thoughts of Skippy strong in my mind, I finally manage to succeed.

However, there is one little problem left... "I... um..." I pause. "Kim, you're a lot better at climbing this damn tree than I am. Probably now more than ever."

"All right. I'll come down."

And she does, with unearthly grace, until she is sitting beside me on the branch.

And then I hug her. Finally. There is no hesitation, no drawing back, no anything. For this one moment, there is no communicable disease, no SCABS, no consequences. Just me and Kim. Like we've always been. It's one of those moments that, in a universe with any sense of justice, would never end.

Suddenly, Kim's hug becomes desperate, and she begins sobbing in earnest. The magic is broken, the reality comes sweeping back in. I watch that moment as it departs, even as Kim dampens my shoulder with her still-human tears.

"Jordan... I can't take this... I can't do this... I hate being like this..." Kim, my unfailingly calm and collected friend, is wavering on the edge of hysteria. I never thought I'd see the day. She's actually looking a bit irrational...

"Shhh." I say, in an attempt to give some banal comfort. "Shhh."

"My... my mom says I'm beautiful. I thought she was lying."

"You are beautiful, Kim. Just like I said."

"Thanks.... Jordan..." She resumes her crying, pulling away from me a little bit.

I swallow, hard. "Kim. Is there anything I can do..."

She hugs me again. "I just wish..."

Time slows again...

"...I weren't alone..."

And that's when it happens.

There is a faint prickle from Kim's fingers, from their position at my shoulders. It's an uneasy prickle, somewhat sickly to the touch. My mouth fills with the taste of piss and hot lead and my head swims crazily for a moment.

In a heartbeat, the prickles migrate downwards from my shoulders, coalescing at the base of my spine...

There is a brief, uncomfortable feeling of pressure, relieved quite suddenly, only to be followed with a streak of sharp pain that races up and down my spine like a molten razor..

It lasts only for a second. And then it is over. Kim's odd-looking copperish eyes go wide.

Nervelessly, almost unconsciously, my eyes follow her gaze downward, to a point beneath the limb on which I sit.

There, hanging patiently at a point directly beneath my body, is a handsome black-ringed tail.

Another heartbeat passes. Both of us stare in ghasted shock.

It twitches.

I twitch it.

My tail.

"...Jesus Fuck..." I breathe.

"Jay... Jay, I'm sor-"

"JESUS FUCK, KIM!" I'm still staring at it. I cautiously give it another flick. No doubt about it. That's my tail down there.

...oh, my god...

"JESUS FUCK!" I repeat, for lack of a better phrase. Wildly, I begin to check myself over. Nothing's different, substantially. Still the same old Jordan. With one extra feature...

"Jay, I didn't mean it... I don't even know what happened..." Kim is definitely becoming hysterical here. I know how she feels.

"FUCK!" I exclaim, again. I continue my desperate self- examination. So frantic am I that I lose my balance on the tree limb upon which I'm sitting and fall gracelessly to the leaf-strewn ground below. Above me, Kim rushes to the end of her branch, checking to see if I'm okay.

I'm not okay. I'm pretty fucking far from being okay.

"JESUS CHRIST, KIM!" My rampant horror is practically shriveling the greenery upon which I lay. "Jesus Christ, Kim! You fucking infected me!"

"I didn't mean it!" She cries. She looks almost as afraid as I imagine that I must, right now. Tears are streaming down her furry cheeks, dampening her characteristic black mask. My heart isn't going out to her. I'm concerned with other things at the moment...

What would my Dad think...

It's a good thing that I'm too horrified to scream right now.

In the blink of an eye, Kim has flicked down the tree to ground level. She's looking at me with the most frantically apologetic eyes that I've ever seen on a living creature.

She makes a move towards me.

Desperately, I scrabble to my feet, my back aching from my fall, tripping over my new-grown tail in the process. I stumble away from her, watching her guardedly. "Don't you come near me!" I shout.

Tears well up in her eyes. "Jordan..." She makes a move towards me again, as if she's going to hug me. Fuck that. We can see where hugging Kim gets us, yes? I back away. She advances.

"You stay the fuck away from me..."

"Jordan..."

"STAY THE FUCK AWAY!"

"JORDAN!"

And she falls at me, half-stumbling on her as-yet-uncertain legs, arms open, crying rivers, desperate in an unthinking and mindless way to recapture the lost moment of our final hug.

I slap her. Hard. Across the face. As I would any other assailant.

She starts back, as if she's just been shot. It's not too far from the truth.

An angel of silence passes over the scene, as we gaze into each others' eyes.

And then she's gone. Back to the Tree and up, way up, farther up than I ever remember her having been able to climb before the virus took her from me...

All the way up and out of sight, into the canopy of Autumn-Gold leaves.

"KIM!" I scream. I don't even know what motivates this last shout. Apology, anger, betrayal, fear... probably a little of everything.

There is utterly no reply.

I squeeze my eyes shut and turn away from the Tree, my own tears coming fast.

I limp away, towards the west. Towards my home. And the gathering storm.

I have never seen Kim DeJong since.


Observe the primate, half-running, half-staggering, as he lurches down the streets of his peaceful little town.

Watch his eyes, especially. Note the dilated pupils--a sure sign of extreme fear and shock. See the lack of coherent expression to be found there. Glance briefly, if you care to, upon a few haphazard tears that don't really seem to know why exactly they're there. Take in the rest of his face, next. Watch his jaw trembling, his nostrils flaring in hyper-ventilation. Also, observe, if you will, a few tell-tale strands of hair from his completely species-inappropriate tail where they stick out from his ruined sweat-pants. Note the clumsy fashion in which this same tail has been shoved into one of the pant-legs, in an jury-rigged and pitiful attempt to hide its existence from the eyes of the outside world.

Hear his thoughts...

Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit ohshitohshitohshitohshit...

My brain is racing.

Okay. Okay. Maybe I'm not really infected, as such. Dad told me once that sometimes people with full-blown cases of SCABS can, for some unknown reason, work changes in the bodies of people that they touch. Maybe this is just temporary. Maybe I'm not gonna be branded for life, here.

So. How long is it going to be before it goes away?

You realize, of course, Jordan, that if anyone actually sees you with this fucking thing, your life is toast. Completely toast. Protest all you want about how this was forced upon you, the general public sees a guy with a four-foot long furry tail, they're going to think SCAB. And that would be it. Kiss goddamn college good-bye. Hell, kiss everything good-bye. You'll be rejected by the school, denied from participating in football...

Thrown out by your family...

That sick twist of dagger-in-the-gut dread fills me again. What would my Dad think...

What WILL my Dad think...

Somewhere, deep-down, a tiny idealistic voice tells me that maybe, just maybe, having his eldest son branded as a SCAB would open him up to the world... would force him to see all that he's done against SCAB rights in a new light, or something. Sure, it'd be painful for a while, but in the end, my father would be forced to see the error of his ways. And in the end, my father, the nascent hero of SCAB rights, would be able to look back on his life and say that the day his son came home with a lemur tail was the most enlightening day of his entire life, and was indeed the focal point of his own transformation into a truly caring individual.

I laugh at that voice, in a harsh and merciless fashion, mocking it for its sheer stupidity.

I don't know what my Dad would do. But I sure as hell know it wouldn't be pleasant.

Okay. So. How do you hide, for an undetermined length of time, the fact that you have a four-foot long black-and- white striped fuzzy tail growing out of your ass?

Loose pants, my brain begins. Lots of loose pants. Maybe start wearing a long coat, like...

...kim...

...does...

I grit my teeth and squeeze my eyes shut again. Okay. That might work. You're a grown boy now, Jordan, your parents let you take your own showers and everything. As long as you clean the hairs off the drain and spend as little time at home as possible, you might be able to do this for...

...The next couple days?

...The next couple years?

And then, I remember football practice...

No real chance for loose pants, there, Jor. Spandex and shoulder pads all the way.

I'll call in sick for practice. Hang around in the library at school so no-one suspects anything at home. If it goes on for too long, I'll quit the team. Football means the world to me, but a choice between that and facing the rest of my life with the scarlet letter "S" branded into my forehead is suddenly a rather easy one.

DAMN HER!

Damn her...

"Damn you, Kim DeJong..." I whisper to myself.

Words I never thought I'd speak.

My tears starting anew, I continue my shambling run towards my home.


The front porch light is on, providing a steadier and more constant illumination than the distant heat lightning. From here, you can see Gloria in the kitchen, baking bread, of all things. What a fucking joke. Domestic fucking tranquility. I notice that my Dad's car is gone again, by the way. Off "doing business" in the City. For all I know, my Dad is, at this very moment sleazing it up with one of the more... exclusive... services that the City offers its minions. While Gloria stays home, blissfully baking bread. Suddenly, I quite coolly and rationally realize that I hate them both. Him for doing it and Her for sitting there and taking it.

The magical smell of baking fills the air. I remember holidays with the family. Christmas dinner. My father sitting quietly beside me while I cried and cried at the death of Santa Claus. A hundred-and-one indispensable electronic toys, batteries not included. Thanksgiving and the picture of me in that goddamn stupid Pilgrim outfit. Easter at Grandma's. New Year's Eve in the City, dressed to the nines and possibly the tens as well, at the annual Society of the Cincinnati bash, all family invited.

Choking back sobs, I rush through the door and am halfway to the stairs in seven seconds flat. Gloria barely has time to whirl around from the task of slicing one of her fresh loaves with the big old serrated knife that she inherited from my "real" Grandma when she married my Dad. "Jordan!" she says, surprised. I do not acknowledge her, so intent am I at getting out of her sight before she has a chance to see that anything's amiss. I fly up the steps in four and a half bounds at the very most; then, three long strides down the upstairs hall bring me to my room (the one with the 49'ers pennant on the door). Gloria is just starting on the steps as I throw open the door, pass through, slam it violently shut again, and turn the lock.

I had intended to go immediately to my dresser, to find an intact pair of sweats that didn't reveal anything of my new addition. As for the damage to my current pair, I could explain it as having been caused, in part, by falling out of a tree. Not too far off. That was my intent. Unfortunately, things don't always work out the way you intend them to, and sometimes, especially when you've had a day like this one, the prospect of throwing yourself into bed, smothering your face into your pillow and sobbing until the pain subsides seems a very pleasing one. And so I do.

Hours pass, as Gloria attempts to get me to open the door and tell her what's going on. I pay her no heed, as usual. Eventually, the glare of headlights from the driveway indicate that my father has finished with his "business" and has decided to grace us with his presence again. In a matter of minutes, my father, too, is outside my door, threatening to break it down if I don't comply with his demands. Gloria yells at him for suggesting such a thing, Dad demands that Gloria not give him any advice on how to raise his son, and that gets them going on each other. Things escalate. After a time, I think that I might or might not hear someone getting struck. I wonder, idly, who it is this time. Bobby Junior begins crying, from somewhere downstairs. In a vaguely sick sense, I'm glad that, at least for tonight, it sounds like the rest of the family is going to be taking the brunt of his anger. I also feel guilty about feeling glad, but I can't help it.

And still, the sobs come. On into the night and the eventual hurt and scarred-over silence of evening.

The storm finally breaks.


Three A.M. Everything bad happens at Three A.M. Midnight is for pansies, in This Modern World.

The house has lapsed into a wounded silence. From without, the storm. Lightning arcs across the sky, the rain falls in sheets, the patter of occasional pea-gravel hail. Somewhere far away, the distant and banshee-like wailing of a storm siren.

The sobbing has stopped. Tears crust my cheeks and make my eyes feel gummy. Blue-white flashes flood my room with occasional light, and the thunder, well, thunders. I'm staring stock straight ahead at the ceiling. My eyes are wide open. Sleep? Don't make me laugh...

The goddamned tail is still there. I can feel it.

My goddamned fucking SCAB tail.

I'm not going to be able to do this. I'm not going to be able to handle it. Hiding this damn thing was the stupidest fucking idea I've ever had. Why couldn't Kim have been a fucking Giant Panda, or a fucking Rottweiler or something? At least then I might have stood a chance. But not a fucking Ring-Tailed Lemur, Jesus. The damn thing is two-thirds as long as I am, for crissake.

'Long?' Jesus Christ, did I just measure myself in 'Length', for crying out loud? Humans are 'Tall,' Jordan, not 'Long...'

I twitch my tail nervously. And then I realize what I'm doing.

I'm beginning to lose it. I just know I'm beginning to lose it...

I think of the future that faces me if this thing doesn't go away. A future like Skippy's. Or Kim's. Getting the shit beat out of me by assorted members of the faculty and student body of Edgerton High. The resulting psychotherapy sessions. Losing any possibility of a college education. Taking any shit job that'll hire me. Living the rest of my life as a SCAB.

I wonder if I'm over-reacting here, and there comes to me the sick realization that I don't know if I am or not.

I see the precipice. And it's a long way down.

And then, quite calmly, I realize what I must do.

With quiet purpose I step from my room into the silence of the house. Everyone else is asleep. I tiptoe all the way to the upstairs bathroom and retrieve some packages of sterile gauze from the medicine chest. I make my way downstairs, deliberately skipping step number four (the squeaky one), down past the laundry and the living room, all the way to the kitchen, whose warm atmosphere still carries the lingering odor of fresh bread.

There, sitting neatly in the dish-drainer, freshly washed from its use in Gloria's recent baking, is Grandma's old Serrated Knife.


Cut to Outside, one half-hour later. The storm still rages. Observe the primate, at least as much as you can see of him in the illumination of the lightning overhead. Observe him limping steadily through the buffeting wind and driving rain, wearing an over-large raincoat and galoshes belonging, ironically, to his father. See him as he picks his way towards the little vegetable garden behind the house, bearing in one hand a spade and in the other, a sealed Ziplock Two-Gallon Storage bag, which would be seen to contain, in better and more constant light, a rather large something colored a little bit black, a little bit white, and a whole lot a bit red. Observe the primate as he tediously digs deep into the muddy earth in the clear space between the zucchini and the tomatoes, at a level deeper than would ever be casually excavated in conventional horticulture. See him, as the lightning flickers all about, depositing the bag in the newly-dug hole and carefully placing shovel after shovel of almost-mud on top of it. See him finishing his labors, patting down the disturbed soil as best he can, and trusting in the incessant rain to do the rest.

See the tailless primate as he limps painfully backwards towards his home.


As noted, to this day, I have never seen Kim DeJong again. Oh, she hung around for a little while. I am told by some that they had spotted, after some careful observation, a sleek black-white-and-grey shape that would hang around all day at the very top of the big white maple at the center of the campus, mostly hidden by the autumn foliage. I never saw her. I never went anywhere near Kim's Tree. But as time went on and the leaves began to fall in earnest, and the corresponding risk of exposure became too great, Kim disappeared and went back to spending all day, every day, shut tightly up in her house with her folks. And then, one day, while Kim and her parents were off on a "vacation" to Baltimore to visit a specialist, the DeJong house was burned to the ground. It was already a total loss by the time the firefighters got there. Arson was suspected, but no suspects were presented and no charges were ever formally pressed. I get this mental picture of Kim and her family coming home from their trip to find everything, everything, literally, gone up in smoke. I don't like to think of that picture for very long. Anyway, the DeJongs apparently gave up on Edgerton, for we never saw hide nor hair of them...

Sorry about that phrase usage...

Again.

The lot upon which Kim's house used to stand is pleasant and green now. I think that I can detect a concrete lawn-ornament set on ornamental hickory-bark somewhere there. But in the yellow two-story duplex that now occupies the lot, there is no sign of the marvelous house where my friend Kim used to live. It's like she's been erased from the Mind of God. Everything except that one little picture of her in her trenchcoat, trying to pin on a corsage.

Oh, God. I miss her.

I carefully clamp my jaw into position and turn away from Kim's Yard, and walk resolutely onwards towards the Third Corner and Piergeron Stadium.


Piergeron Stadium. Just the thing I need. To forget everything that comes before or after this point in the story and bask, mindlessly, in the aura of this place. A bit of a rest before the really difficult stuff starts.

It's locked, ostensibly. Not that that matters to someone who acquired an intimate familiarity with the place over the course of four years. The chainlink gate still doesn't come all the way down to the ground on the rear southwestern entrance. It's a tighter fit than I remember. Or perhaps I'm just a bit out of shape. Regardless, after only a few moments of undignified wriggling across the freshly-tarred asphalt, I am inside and standing before the vast expanse of carefully-manicured grass that meant so much to me just a few short years ago. My shirt gets a bit dirty, but I'm on a roll now, and trivialities like the physical appearance of my wardrobe are starting to fade into the grey of unimportance. I gaze up into the bleachers, towards the media box; I couldn't see it from my first view of this place, but now it's quite apparent to me that the entire grandstand area has been rebuilt, from the inside out. That explains the new PA system on the towers. I have my suspicions that, given what I know about Edgerton High, the improvements were expensive ones. But necessary ones, of course. We wouldn't want the Team to have anything other than the best and most state-of-the-art facility that money could buy. Never mind that Mr. Pike is still probably trying to get them to scrape together the funds to allow his purchase of a new distillation apparatus for the chemistry students. Education is one thing, but by God, Football is quite another.

I never noticed these things when I was a part of the Team. It all seemed to make sense in the grand scheme of things that we were accorded the best and the highest. We were the Hawks. The Spirit of the School. The Pride of the Community. The goddamn Bourgeoisie. There wasn't a direct relationship between Football and overall social standing at the school (Case in point: Me.) but everywhere we went, we were at least accorded some measure of respect.

The chief example of this was the aforementioned Brian Stockmann, our Scandinavian Hercules of a quarterback. Doors were opened in his presence. Wheels were greased. Women were floored (or couched, or bedded...) The crowds parted like water. To him, there were no barriers. Either on the field or off. To our dumbstruck and adolescence-dazed brains, Brian Stockmann appeared to be nothing less than than the absolute proof of the existence of a benevolent God. There was something cosmic and primal about him, as though he were the master template from which all the rest of us should have been stamped. In short, he was Adam, and Edgerton was his Garden.

We had no problem with this. As high-schoolers, such Darwinism is a way of life, and if Brian Stockmann was the pinnacle of his evolutionary niche, then so be it. The rest of us had two choices: to either sit there being pissed off or to find other ways to excel.

Mine, of course, was straight-up excellence in football. Sure, my only friend and social outlet in the greater metropolitan area had just vanished from the face of the earth, but that sure as hell didn't mean I couldn't be a good team player. And so I threw myself into my practices, after a few mandatory days spent off the field recovering from my impromptu surgery. I lied to everyone about the causes of my time in recovery, and even though the scar was (and still is, I might add) an ugly and jagged one, it happened to be in one of those embarrassing places that no-one ever asks to look at. So, all in all, I tried to say to myself, it could have been worse.

I was right. The worst was yet to come.

At any rate. Under the admittedly inferior guidance of Coach Garrick, I honed myself to a razor's edge. There was nothing else to do. All of my anger and rage and pain and sadness, which normally would have flickered wildly and uncontrollably from the mouth of the acetylene torch of my soul were trimmed down and starved away into a fierce blue cutting edge, suitable for metalwork. And the scouts from the colleges were suitably impressed.

My determination paid off in other ways, too. My grades improved. Turner reversed his opinion of me one-hundred-eighty degrees after a scathing and opinionated concept speech on the inadequacy of the current welfare system, and wouldn't you know it, my Rhetoric scores started becoming comparable to what my Dad used to earn. I could feel no pride in this accomplishment. No success was good enough, no victory satisfying enough, no fait ever accompli.

Of course, I knew why I was punishing myself. Because the one person I truly cared about in the entire school was dead to me. And as the weeks passed, I grew more and more despondent while all the while becoming more and more successful.

I was finally living up to my potential. And I was more miserable than I had ever been in my life.

It was a hell of a time.

And, of course, that's when my Dad gave me the lighter.

I remember him sitting me down one day on the comfy old sofa in our Family room and removing from his pocket a tiny mirrorplate-silver box with the figure of an eagle or a hawk or some other appropriately majestic-slash-patriotic raptor embossed upon it in gold. A Zippo. The Rolls-Royce of pocket combustion. This particular example obviously dated back to a point well before the turn of the century. Dad gives it to me to look over, and then waits, almost expectantly. I look at him and shrug.

"Nice." I say.

"I don't smoke." He replies.

"Yeah. I know."

"Curious as to why I carry a lighter around?"

I shrug again.

"That lighter, Jordan, was your great-grandfather's. He--"

"Yeah, okay. I already got the picture, Dad." I say, depriving him of an opportunity for a monologue. "Let's cut to the chase. It's been passed on from generation to generation and blah de fucking blah--"

My father seizes me by the arm. Hard. "Don't you use that language with me, Jordan."

Instantly, I submit. No thought is involved. I'm just salivating for the bell; non-compliance equals instant pain. The fundamental equation of my home. I look downward, abashed. "Sorry."

He relaxes his grip. "You're forgiven." He pauses. "Now. As you've obviously guessed, this lighter is a bit of an heirloom. Quite valuable, in fact. One of only a hundred of its kind produced by the company. It's seen six of the seven continents and every one of the oceans in its day. It's been through at least one war, possibly two. It's seen the collapse of Communism, the independence of Quebec, the fall of Belfast and the territorial annexation of the New Indochinese State. And, more recently, it's been with me throughout my own political career, all the way back to my chairmanship of the Public Works Committee. It was in my pocket when I took my first oath of office, and it's been there for every major election since."

"I never knew you believed in lucky charms, Dad."

"Luck has nothing to do with it, Jordan. When people believe in a physical token of luck, what they're really doing is putting their faith in an outside power, in randomness. When you start to turn Chaos into a religion, you have failed, Jordan." He pauses. "No, what you have there is the exact opposite. It is a token to remind you of your control over your own destiny. What you have there is is a symbol. It is a symbol of the power that you have to win. To triumph over the odds. The lighter means nothing in and of itself. But your Great-Grandfather and your Grandfather and your Father before you have all used this simple token to recall the legacy that we all have borne as members of our line. A legacy that can be traced all the way back to the American Revolution. A legacy of pride, and of courage, and, most of all, success. And when you feel yourself, as you will from time to time, become weak and afraid and scared, you must never give in. Never." He taps the gleaming case that I hold in my hands. "That is what this means. It's somewhat like a string around your finger. Whenever you are aware of its presence, it will remind you of the name that you bear and the expectations that you must fulfil as bearer of that name. My father gave it to me. And I give it to you."

I am silent. My mind is awhirl. Yes, my natural cynicism is having a field day with this. But there's something more...

"In these past few weeks, Jordan, I've seen an awakening in you. There's a spark in your eyes that I've never seen before. I know that you've felt it, too. It's as plain as the sun. You've always been a good football player, Jordan, but I must say that your performance in this last game was, not to put too fine a point on it, absolutely stunning. You don't know how it feels as a father to sit there in the stands, watching you, and hearing the crowds roar as you stop a breakaway receiver. Coach Garrick, in my hearing, called you his Last Line of Defense. You've impressed everyone, Jordan, myself included." He permits himself a small smile. "And you know very well that I'm a hard man to impress."

Jesus Christ! What's going on here? I'm searching and searching through my mental repository to find an appropriate response to being complimented by my Dad... and I'm just not finding one...

Eighteen Fucking Years.

I've finally done it. I've won. The struggle is over. At last.

My Dad is impressed. With me.

Frantically, my rational mind begins raising objections. Reminding me of all the bad blood that Dad and I have shared. Reminding me of the pain that he's caused me, caused all of us, mental and physical. Reminding me of a lifetime of lies and half-truths and betrayals.

My Dad is impressed. With me.

It's happening at exactly the wrong moment in my life. Right here, right now. The first semester of my Senior Year. When I'm feeling more alone and afraid and unnerved than I can ever remember feeling. An endless succession of painful choices and events. First Hyerson. Then Skippy. Then Stockmann. Then... Kim. I'm weak, beaten and woozy, and now, after all that, somebody is finally giving me a token to remind me of my fundamental worth. A pat on the back. The recognition that I've so sorely longed for my entire life. I know what I'm about to do, and I can't stop it for the world.

"Thanks." I whisper.

And, to the quiet horror of that one rational part of my mind that still remains, I find myself feeling happy. I can't help it. I try to struggle against it, but my consciousness has latched on to this, and latched on hard.

The bastard knew I was vulnerable, I desperately protest to myself. He could sense it. This is just another carefully calculated move on his behalf to shape the world into his image.

My Dad is impressed. With me.

"You've earned it." He says.

And the struggle is over. Carefully, almost reverently, I place the lighter in my pocket. The mark of a favor that I've fought for so long to attain.

"And... Jordan?"

"Yeah?"

"There's another thing. The game you have coming up. Against Montrose...?"

"Homecoming." I nod.

"I've made some... arrangements. With some friends of mine. Tell me, Jay... Do you remember when we toured the University of Alabama this summer?"

"Yeah." I say, carefully. "Pretty campus."

"What did you think of the school?"

"Not as good a law program as most of the Ivy League ones." I say, automatically.

"You're only saying that because of me."

Brilliant, Dad. You've never given me any options other than your opinion before. Of course I'm saying that because of you.

Dad takes me by the hands and looks me straight in the eyes. "Tell me what you feel."

A whole evening full of firsts, now. Briefly I wonder if I might be dreaming.

"I... erm..."

Dad motions me on, encouraging me to continue. I take a deep breath.

"I liked it there. A lot."

He nods.

"Remember that game you took me to while we were there?"

"Crimson Tide over the Seminoles. 44-10."

"That was a hell of a football game."

"Yes, sir."

Dad gazes off into space for a moment. "Good football program there, Alabama."

"Yes, sir."

"Jordan." He says, returning his gaze to me. "Would you like to go there? For college, I mean?"

"Well, yes... but... I thought... we were holding out... to see if, like, Harvard was interested..."

"I know I said that, Jordan. I know." He smiles. "But U.A. has a decent law school. Fairly well ranked. And when it comes to football... well. There's just no comparison."

I actually glance around, with the strange thought that there might be a hidden camera around or something. That this is all some elaborate prank on the part of my Dad, just to spite me. But he's looking as genuine as I've ever seen him...

"There'll be people there at the Montrose game, Jordan. I've invited them. They're... shall we say... interested in your athletic performance. Unfortunately, your academic performance up until the past few weeks has been a bit lackluster. But..." He grins. "But... the people I've invited are willing to... overlook a little bit of youthful indiscretion in the academic fields... if they feel that your skills are sufficient..."

I swallow. "People from U.A.?"

He nods. Once again, everything that I thought I knew about the world has utterly changed. My Dad is looking out for me. Our desires have finally become unified. I can please him and, at the same time, do what I've always dreamed.

Something inside me rejoices. I knew it. I knew that if I worked hard enough, eventually I could win him over. He's not really a merciless bastard. Sure, he has his problems... well, let's face it, a lot of problems. But no more than yourself. Hell, Jay, you would have let Skippy Martens die rather than touch him. You're not in any position to be making moral judgements, here...

My Dad is impressed. With me. I keep coming back to these words. Over and over. I can hardly believe it.

"That's partially why I gave you the lighter today, Jordan. You're at the last furlong before Homecoming. I just wanted to let you know... I'm pulling for you."

He hugs me once around the shoulders and chucks me underneath the chin. And then, he gets up and leaves the room.

And with that simple little gesture, the last remaining bit of everything that I thought I knew about the world vanishes without a trace.

I remove the lighter from my pocket and run my thumb over the figure of the Hawk embossed on the side.

Then, in one smooth motion, as though I'd been doing this all my life, I flick open the case and spin the sparkwheel. I am rewarded by an ambient yellow flame, shifting gently in the imperceptible air-currents of the room.

I stare into that single flame for what feels like an eternity. The same fire seen by my father and my father's father and my father's father's father before him.

Everything I thought that I knew about the world is now gone.

And perhaps it's high time for something new to begin...


Quietly, I wander towards the field proper of Piergeron Stadium, passing as I go the life-sized bronze statue of Nile Piergeron, for whom the facility was named. Nile was one of the greatest running backs in High School Athletics in his time. Judging by the artist's rendition of him, Ol' Nile was not the handsomest of chaps; even in memorandum, the artist couldn't bring himself to beautify that face. But there is a sort of bluff cheerfulness about his countenance that suggests that this was a truly great man, body and soul. According to the plaque, Nile Piergeron had a broad, bright future ahead of him, with possible NFL contracts and everything. But he turned it all down, electing instead to serve Mom, Apple Pie, Major General Hyden-Pierce and the Goddamn American Way in the somewhat questionably- important Indochinese War. Sorry. Indochinese Police Action. Gotta make sure we know exactly why we're slaughtering each other, don't we. Anyway, when they finally calculated the final death tolls of the catastrophic battle of Mormon Hill, his name was amongst the (thousands of) fallen. Edgerton mourned, and in a sort of tribute, the school's sports facility was completely re-built (again) and named in his honor.

The plaque does not say so, but in my opinion, Nile Piergeron was an incredibly stupid young man.

But look who's talking, right?

Anyway. Those last weeks before Homecoming saw a certain fierceness or intensity in me that I do not believe I had ever, or have since, seen. It was that old acetylene-torch feeling again, except for this time, I wasn't making random cuts. I was working for a purpose here. I was, in fact, fashioning a new world for myself out of the dregs and scraps of the old. Garrick ceased coaching me altogether, saying that I was obviously doing something right and he'd be damned if he was going to change it. People stopped wanting to scrimmage against me. The Mighty Brian Stockmann himself alone was willing to lead the fight, and I daresay I provided him with some of the most hideously frustrating defensive challenges that he'd ever faced. Practice after practice literally flew by, and I rapidly became disappointed at how frigging short they all were. So I put in overtime, informing my family quite calmly that I had breezed through all of my Higher Maths homework over the lunch hour and would consequently be spending the evening "away." Drilling myself, of course. Weights. The Ropes. Sprints. Footwork Routines. Careful Stretches. And at each and every step, I was striking a blow towards the New World Order. Towards my goal and towards my dream.

And before every new practice, I would sit there in the locker room, flicking my father's beautiful antique-silver lighter over and over again, gazing meditatively into the warm yellow flame. I must have gone through a whole bottle of fluid. People would come up to me and ask me, jokingly, what the fuck I was doing. Without ever taking my eyes off that flame, I would quietly and simply inform them that I was Concentrating. This usually tended to make them uneasy, and they would mutter a few more half-hearted jokes and wander off. It didn't matter. By that time I had already forgotten about them. Day after day after day. Clearing a path for a changed world.

I only realize now how much like my father I was.

Not that I was the only one interested in changing the world, either. Principal Mandley was forced to resign after some rather nasty sexual-assault charges were brought against him. This came as a bit of a shock to everyone; frankly, from what I gather of the situation, this included Principal Mandley himself, who protested his innocence until the end. But the parents of the girl in question had tapes--albeit fuzzy and somewhat distorted ones. The case was thrown out of criminal court for lack of evidence, but it was still left up to the ethics committees and the school board to decide Mandley's future as Principal of Edgerton High. Some of the more cynical and / or enlightened members of the faculty pointed to Principal Mandley's strong Pro-SCABS stance and wondered if there might be something amiss here. But all doubts were removed by the persuasive testimony of my loving father during the countless ethics hearings that followed the accusation. The Board went so far as to laud my father for his "invaluable assistance in gleaning the truth of these sordid matters," and subsequently relied heavily on his advice in the selection of a "temporary" successor to Principal Mandley.

None of this mattered to me in the slightest. You could have told me that the entire teaching staff had been obliterated in a freak lightning storm during Inservice and I would have hardly batted an eye. I had other concerns.

Homecoming.

All the week's festivities were lost on me. I think there might have been a dance. I didn't attend. I idly found myself wondering why somebody had strung crepe paper ribbons all over the cafeteria. One night, while I was doing five-part sprints on the jogging track, I noticed an unusual amount of sound and light coming from the direction of the Gymnasium. Upon investigating, I realized that I was in the process of missing my own school's Pep Rally. I actually shrugged, turned right around, and went back to my sprints. I wasn't interested in "Pep." I had something far deeper going.

And throughout it all, even though not technically conscious of anything but my training, I was still somehow dimly aware that all of this hoopla was leading up to something vast and wonderful. All of it, each and every bit, down to the individual streamer, was part and parcel of the real culmination of Homecoming week.

The Game.

Where everyone who was anyone, students, faculty, local telecasters and agents from U.A. alike, would see me, in my glory, help Edgerton to claim that prize for which I had struggled so hard.

A win for the Home Team.

Incidentally, approximately a year later, one of my college roommates asked me what the word "hubris" meant in conjunction with the classical Greek tragedies. Something about that struck me as incredibly funny at the time, because I simply laughed and laughed and laughed, until he got pissed off and asked someone else.

I wouldn't have found it funny one year before.

Cautiously, I step forwards onto the carefully-manicured grass. There is complete and total silence, save for the odd cricket here and there. The grass feels soft under the soles of my shoes, and, without really thinking about it, I promptly kick them off and wiggle my toes in the well-tended lawn of the field.

And then, I walk to the center. And peer in all directions at this flat plane of grass that surrounds me, stretching off into the near distance on all sides.

There is an audible mechanico-electrical clunk as the fading sun finally stimulates a photocell somewhere to action, and as the evening grows more complete, the blindingly white Stadium Lamps on the towers above me hum into existence, one by one.

And as the lights come up and the world outside fades into darkness, pale and ghost-like wraiths of memory begin intruding upon my consciousness. Noises, sounds, carried to me across time by the crisp Autumn air. I can hear distant echoes of the Band. The faint, far-off roar of the crowds. And... the voice of Coach Garrick... calling my name...


"Hey. Jordan."

I blink, roused from my meditations. The case of the lighter closes with a click.

"Jordan. You with us here?"

I slowly turn my attention towards the voice. Garrick, of course. My coach. A moment passes before I respond.

"Yes?" I say, quietly. I am vaguely aware that Garrick is looking at me with an expression that, until this moment, he would have thought exclusively reserved for the observation of lunatics or dangerous animals. Garrick, I perceive, is _uneasy._ Perhaps at my behavior. Coaches, as a general rule, appreciate their players getting "psyched up" for upcoming matches, but it's clear that he believes that to spend several hours on end sitting cross-legged on the fifty yard line gazing into the flame of an antique lighter the afternoon before the game is to begin to take things a little bit too far.

No matter. Coach Garrick has grown increasingly irrelevant to me. As has everything else. Except the Game.

Garrick clears his throat slightly. "They're going to be prepping the stadium in a couple hours, Jordan. You going to be here when that happens?"

"Perhaps." I say.

"Feeling the aura?" He says, blithely.

I stare at him for a bit. After a long pause that flits on the near edge of uncomfortable, I reply, "I suppose so."

I go back to flicking the lighter. Over and over again. The flame remains steady, of course; the Zippo provides a constant feed as long as the case is open. Doesn't matter. I enjoy the noise that the sparkwheel makes. It's sort of like a mantra.

Garrick hems and haws a little bit. "Jordan?"

I snap the lighter closed. I look at him again. Pause. "Yes?"

"We're a little worried about you here." He laughs, nervously, although I know that he is not being entirely facetious.

"Don't worry." I say. Pause. "I'm fine."

Snap. Flick. Flick. Flick.

"Jordan..."

Snap.

"Yes?"

"Jordan, Montrose is gonna be showing up in a little while. They'll probably be warming up on the Fields, but they _may_ want to use the Stadium, here. You _will_ move if they ask you to." Garrick smiles uneasily, but this time, he's being dead serious. I meet his gaze, quite calmly.

"...Right?" He says.

"Perhaps." I say.

Snap. Flick. Flick. Flick.

"Just take care of yourself, huh?"

Flick. Flick. Flick. Flick

"Jordan?"

"I will." I say, my gaze never leaving the ambient flame.

Garrick nods, then, and walks slowly away.

He disappears and is gone. Literally. From my mind.

Flick. Flick. Flick. Flick. Flick.

Time passes.


Flick. Flick. Flick. Flick. Flick.

Pause.

Once again, I am not alone. I can sense it. It is as though my consciousness has expanded through my ceaseless meditations to include every blade of grass covering every inch of the Stadium floor. I can feel the presence of something... other...

I pause, waiting to be accosted.

The day so far has been filled with a number of occasional visits. Teammates, wondering after my status. Teachers from the classes that I'm skipping. The Assistant Principal. The Groundskeepers. And, lately, Coach Garrick. All wondering, essentially, what the fuck it is I'm doing sitting out here all alone. As always, I simply inform them that I'm fine and that I'm just... concentrating. I've received a few back-pats, a few concerned glances, and, from the Assistant Principal, an idle admonishment for cutting class, a comment that I daresay he regretted making upon finding himself on the receiving end of my impeccably calm and distinctly unnerving Stare. Each and every one in turn has done their business with me, for better or for worse, and then turned to go. So I wait for the inevitable, wondering idly who it is this time.

Nothing comes. For some time.

And, although it seems somewhat silly to say so, my unseen visitor and I spontaneously begin a silent and undeclared struggle of wills. In my focused-state, I am determined not to acknowledge the presence of any distractors, choosing to wait instead until they force their presence upon me.

Still, nothing comes.

Doubt creeps into my formerly perfect concentration. This isn't how the world is supposed to work. Whoever they are, they're supposed to call attention to themselves, so that I can respond to them and get rid of them and then go back to my reveries. They're not supposed to just sit there, being... present...

Logically, if they don't attempt to gain my attention, they have no business with me and are therefore not worth my time. Thus resolved, I attempt to continue concentrating.

This time, I fail.

I feel myself losing the battle. The urge to look up is strong. To see who is here...

As he... she... it... comes ever so slowly closer... and closer... and closer...

Right behind me...

I leap to my feet, distinctly unnerved, and spin around. "All right. What do you w--"

I don't even finish the sentence, because the figure to whom I have addressed it is gone. Instantly.

"Mother of Christ..." I say, awkwardly completing my turn in a vague and unfocused attempt to figure out what the fuck is going on here. I felt someone. I know I did.

Vanished, without a trace.

A bit shaken, I sit back down. O-kay, Jor. Maybe this has gone just a witzy bit too far. Hallucinations are not a Good Thing.

It is only then that I realize that I have missed lunch. And breakfast, too, for that matter. It's generally considered a pretty stupid idea to skip meals right before important games, but up until this point I've not even felt the need. It's like those monks you read about who eschew nourishment to optimize their spiritual awareness. I'm zoned. I'm focused. I'm concentrating.

I'm thirsty.

Cursing the distraction, I rise again and begin wandering towards the stands and the water fountain that I know is there. Okay, mystical consciousness aside, I need to at least drink something. To do otherwise would be just plain dumb. I mean, look at you. You're seeing things for crissake. Six fucking hours of exposure and you think you--

A flicker. Out of the corner of my eye.

My head snaps around. There. Over by the bleachers.

Yes...

Cautiously, almost predatorily, I approach.

Step by step by step by step by step...

Everything is deadly silent. Even the birds have fallen quiet.

Step by step by step by step...

I'm watching. Carefully. Waiting for that motion again.

My feet leave the grass and touch the rubberized asphalt of the jogging track that surrounds the field. The bleachers loom before me as I approach.

There is a faint, barely perceptible wiggle of something. There, from beneath the seats. My heart leaps, but my steps are as slow and controlled as ever. My concentration has returned to me, but this time, I'm in action. I can't explain why I'm getting so caught up with what is probably a silly little insignificant nothing, perhaps a bit of wind-caught debris or something. It doesn't matter.

I'm on the hunt.

In a sort of wry commentary, one of the many corners of my brain points out that _this_ is probably exactly how your average predator must feel. This one part goes on to make the observation that perhaps Kim's dickering with my phenotype had some other, more subtle effects as well. Another corner of my brain takes up the debate, and states that, no, this is a natural instinctive thing for most vaguely predatory animals, humans not excluded, and there's no reason to become alarmed at a slight overreaction to a spare movement in the environment, especially in the mind-altering frame of mind I've been in this entire day, while the remaining portion of my brain tells both of these two to shut up because damnit, I'm being distracted here, and besides, whatever it is might hear...

Step by step by step by step by step...

Closer and closer.

Five meters. Four. Three.

And then, I see it. A figure. Human, it seems. Crouched in hiding, underneath the seats.

The vague predatory haze dissipates as quickly as it arrived. Just some kid who wandered onto the field. I probably spooked him, spinning around like that. I close the last few meters in a far more casual fashion and end up crouched on the lowest set of seats, looking underneath.

It looks like I pegged 'human' right. As for it being a 'kid,' well, probably not. The figure that sits there crouching nervously amongst the support beams is clearly of high-school age, although there is a certain bland innocence to his face that makes him appear younger than he actually probably is. He has wispy duckfluffy blonde hair and his eyes are a bit too widely-spaced, giving him an odd sort of mentally-incompetent look. One of the Special Ed. kids, I bet. Jesus, I probably freaked him out big time. His vaguely vacant eyes are wide with surprise, and his breathing is coming a bit hard. Best start some damage control...

"Hey. Sorry 'bout that. You just... kind of... surprised me." I look to see if it's registering. It doesn't seem to be. There is no real response. I try again.

"Look. I'm sorry for scaring you. I won't hurt you or anything. You wanna come out of there?"

No response.

"Um. Listen. The S.E. teachers are probably out looking for you right now. You want me to go get one a' them?"

Still no response. We're talking low-functioning young adult here. I'm starting to get a little bit pissed off that this dumbshit is screwing up my focus routine, but that part of me which has compassion for the poor and stupid is still in control. Just get rid of Bright Boy here, and you can go back to your mental prep, okay?

"Are you... like... stuck, or something?"

There is the faintest glimmer of comprehension. A brief pause, and then, one single nod.

Well. Good. He's not a complete veg. "How are you stuck?"

The glimmer goes away. No response.

Rolling my eyes in my best "Oh, Lawd!" expression, I make my way to one end of the bleachers. "Just hang on there. I'm coming." And I begin to pick my way through the welded-steel struts towards the figure resting there amongst.

"You're a damn fast runner," I remark, parenthetically, as I go. "'Spose it's lucky you got caught here at all, else we'd never find ya." Damn Universal Integration anyway. Some kids just aren't mentally fit for normal school life. I mean, yes, the idea behind Integration makes sense, but really, these kids are, not to be blunt or anything, retards. This one worse than most, if what I'm getting from him is any indication.

The words are striking some kind of familiar chord in me, but at this time, I can't for the life of me place it. I brush it off.

"You okay? Nothing hurt or anything?"

No response. Sighing, I close in on him and place one hand on his shoulder.

He freaks. Kicking and thrashing all the way. All played out in a sort of eerie Helen-Kellerish silence. Jesus Christ, the kid's a nutball.

"Hey! Whoa! Calm the fuck down, okay!"

The thrashing lessens. I take a moment to size up the situation. Looks like he got his foot caught in an A-shaped nock of support girder. If he actually gave the matter any thought, he'd realize that all he'd have to do is push his foot down and back, then up and out. But it's one of those things that can't be done directly. And so he's struggling against the pipes, blindly and frantically.

Bare feet, then, I notice. Hm. I check around to see if he kicked his shoes off or anything, but I can find no trace of them. Not the smartest choice of footwear for the debris-strewn area under the bleachers. Otherwise... The basic loose greyish sweatsuit-look seems to be what the well-dressed retard is wearing this fall. Not much else.

The thrashing is subsiding a little bit. A faint muddy gleam of cognition returns to the eyes. He gazes at me.

"You with me here?"

He nods.

"Okay. I'm gonna try and get your leg out. Looks like you need some help with it or something. Don't go spastic on me again, all right?"

He nods. Thinking this sufficient I take his lower calf between my hands. There are a few twitches, but he holds pretty still. In a jiffy, I have moved his leg in the proper fashion to allow me to extricate it, and he's back on his feet.

He looks at me with an almost comic expression of gratitude.

He hugs me.

Okay, I'm kind of embarrassed. But it feels good to be appreciated. The little wanker really kind of gets into it after a while, rubbing his face all over my chest. There's something sort of touching about it, really.

We stand there for some time, our forms alternatingly illuminated and obscured by the black and white striped paths of light and shadow cast by the seats above and the support beams all around. It almost feels kind of sad, in the vague and undefinable way that these sort of things do.

A beat.

"Christasion!" A deep male voice, from far off, rapidly approaching.

"Ah." I say. "That one of your teachers?"

He looks up at me, quite blankly.

"Your... Teachers." I say, more slowly. Still no response.

"Christasion!" The voice is coming closer.

"Hey!" I say, from my position beneath the bleachers. "You looking for somebody?"

"Yeah!" Says the as-yet-unseen voice. "Little blond shit. Seen him?"

"Got him right here!" I say, making my way out from under the stands, dragging the obliging form of my rescuee behind me. "Just a second.."

"Thanks for catching him." He says. "Jake, you dumbass, Coach Pietrick's been shitting his pants looking for you..."

This gives me pause. Pietrick.

Montrose.

I take a brief moment to re-evaluate my charge. This little shit is playing for Montrose tonight?

"You're on the football team?" I say, vaguely in disbelief.

He nods.

I laugh, then, continuing to lead him out from the stands. "Should be a hell of a game." I say, grinning smugly. But there is something unnerving, here. Christasion, or whatever the hell this kid's name is, doesn't look like he could stand up to a stiff breeze, let alone a defensive rush. But he sure as hell can run...

It is a tribute to my own stupidity that I didn't figure it out right then. Blithely, I continue my careful trek until finally we are out in the clear again. In a moment a big hoss of a fellow wearing a Montrose jersey appears from around a corner, and Christasion goes to his side. I nod to him. I vaguely recognize his face from the past few years of games. "New walk-on?" I ask, gesturing to Christasion.

The big fellow just smirks. "'S first game, the little shit."

"Thought they had different leagues for Special kids." I remark.

"Yeah." Remarks the big fellow, unhelpfully, as he turns to go, Jake Christasion firmly in tow. "Thanks for finding 'im."

"Hey." I say, in recognition. "No prob."

He nods once in acknowledgement, and then they are gone.

Jake Christasion speaks not a word as they go.

"Quiet little shit." I remark to myself. I go to the water fountain and take a long drink.

That done, I wander back to the center of the field, sit down, snap open the lighter, and resume my concentration.

Flick. Flick. Flick. Flick.

And as afternoon fades onward into evening, one can hear the beginning warm-ups of the pep band from somewhere far off. And as they rehearse, there comes, like the first harbinger of battle, the staccato rattle of the drum...


And then, all is chaos. Utter chaos.

The noise is deafening. Crowds of students and faculty alike fill the stands, the former brandishing air-horns, toilet-paper rolls and aerosol string despite the best efforts of the latter. The Band, looking somewhat impressive but mostly stupid in their distinctly silly black-and-gold uniforms, are nonetheless blaring out impressively exhilarating harmonic studies in brass and percussion. Pulses quicken to the beat. The air crackles with electricity and suicidal light-diving moths. A chill has fallen, and if morning ever comes after this strange and surrealist night, the first frost should be scattered all about, but for the moment, the only visible result of this is to make our exhalations steam and curl in the air before us, gaggles and gaggles of miniature dragons testing our breaths. The chill feels good. It prickles the skin and makes our muscles warm in compensation. I smell hot-dogs from the concession stand, and onions too, somewhat masked by odors of vinyl and plastic and sweat emanating from all of us nearby. The crowd throbs and stirs over the gutsy cries of the Pom-Pon squad and even their very chatter and conversation grows to a level of near-deafening-ness. Somewhere in that crowd are the recruiting agents for Alabama and the Crimson Tide, my ticket to academic paradise.

Somewhere in that crowd is my Father.

Coach Garrick is wandering around, looking spartan and precise in his Edgerton jacket and aviator glasses, and on the distant sidelines, the team's equipment managers are readying the water bottles and the clipboards.

The announcer is reading off the names of the other squad now. One by one, they rush on to the field, to the muffled cheers of those Montrose fans dedicated enough to attend the away games too. There are a few raspberries and catcalls from the home bleachers, but they are mostly drowned out by the sheer volume of bustle. I hear them read off Christasion's name, but for all that I care, they could be reciting from the phone book. Focus. Focus. Focus. Focus for the college scouts. Focus for Dad. Quick noise! All heads turn towards the accidental blare of lights and sirens from the regulation standby ambulance as the driver, presumably, leans on the wrong switch somewhere. Noise, light and color. The impossible hulks of crepe-covered floats leftover from the Homecoming Parade lurk nearby, each and every one proclaiming imminent and unspeakable victory for us. For me.

For the Team.

Tension thickens in the air as the announcer approaches the end of Montrose's roster. We gather together in a huddle. I am wedged between the Aryan form of Quarterback Brian Stockmann and the sheer bulk of Erik Heldeghast, one of the linebackers. Stockmann is saying something that is presumably a last-minute pep talk, but even I, directly at his left, am unable to pick out a single word. But it's loud, and it's enthusiastic, and when you're in this state, nothing else matters for the world. He finishes his speech. The mouthguards go in. Nature holds its breath.

Brian Stockmann places his hand in the center. Seventeen others shortly follow, mine included.

We bellow a single syllable. Presumably it is the word "Team!" though through the guards, it is likely that the precise word used was something along the lines of "Mwah!" But it doesn't matter.

Because at this very moment, the homefield announcer's voice rises in pitch and volume, and the bustle of the throng becomes a deafening...

Roar...

Shivers run through our forms...

"AND NOW... LADIES AND GENTLEMEN... THE EDGERTON HAWKS!"

Showtime...


The next few hours will ever be a blur to me. An endless series of intense triumphs, intense pains, and combinations thereof. Muscles burn. Shoulders ache. Running like hell. Athletic performance pushed to the redline and beyond. Reaching a point where exhaustion dictates that you spray water randomly at your face rather than even trying to get that damn straw into your mouth. Blood, too. A particularly nasty hit leaves an impact gash on my lower lip. Heldeghast, the big ox, actually ends up nicking my forearm with one of his cleats. Damn lucky he didn't break my fucking arm. One hundred and ten percent proof adrenaline cocktails on the house, liberally spiked with testosterone. We're at peak functioning performance.

But Montrose is good. There's a reason why Garrick was only assistant coach until Hyerson got suspended. Hyerson was a damn fine coach. Garrick, while perfectly adequate, is a far cry from stellar. And Pietrick, the opposing squad's chief, is a damn sneaky bastard. Garrick warned us about this. Pietrick, he said, held a position in his school's art department when not coaching, for crissake. This made him a queer, logically, and the one thing that queers have to be, according to our coach, is sneaky. I consider this during one of my stints on the bench--I can't find myself able to comment on Coach Pietrick's sexual preferences, although the slightly curly hair probably had something to do with inspiring Garrick's fine-tuned logical leaps. But I can rather reliably arrive at the conclusion that he is a sneaky bastard. At least, whoever's calling the plays is. Edgerton, as a rule, hits hard and leaves you dizzy, but Montrose prefers confusion to accomplish the same end. My specific skills are called into play more often than I can reliably recount, and my heart sings with each hit. Striking blows towards the New World Order. I imagine the U.A. scouts perched up there in the stands, nodding approvingly and making careful notes. And I imagine my father. I imagine him smiling.

The first half is a bitter struggle for territory. Stockmann throws a couple of photo-grade passes that keep us on top, but for the most part it's a bitter ground game of the most classic sort. Lactic acid white death scrounge scrounge rip rip turf blood Go Team, Fight, Team, Win, Win, Win! By the time the half is over, the lot of us look like shit. Excepting Boy Wonder Brian, of course, who always looks immaculate. Most of us are feeling like shit, too. But we're on top of things, if only by a few points.

As we retire to the locker room for the half, clearing the field for the Pom Pons, a thought occurs to me through the swiftly dimming haze of action. Christasion hasn't been deployed yet. I haven't seen him leave the bench. The rosters (I checked them) listed him as one of the kickers, and okay, that might explain his lack of shoes (yes, he's still not wearing them...), judging from the odd personal preferences amongst the types of people I've seen playing that particular position, but something is still tugging frantically at my consciousness like a petulant three-year-old in a toy store.

Damn it, what the fuck am I missing, here...

Even if I could have figured it out in the next few minutes, I wasn't given a chance, for Brian Stockmann takes this moment to congratulate me, calling me a "fucking good safety." We are proud of our achievements, yes we are. We are happy that our work is paying off, that our concentration and focus is coming up roses, at last. We are referring to ourselves in First Person Plural. God help us. So caught up are we all with planning for the New and Improved Future that we forget all about poor dumb little Jake Christasion.

Just a word to Garrick might have changed everything. A single offhand remark. I amongst the entirety of the Edgerton squad had seen Jake Christasion in motion, seen his capability for brain-destroying sprints. I could have told Garrick what a fast motherfucker the little retard was. He would have been better prepared, perhaps. Things wouldn't have had to turned out like they did.

There were a thousand possible chances to stop what happened. This was by far not the most important of them.

At any rate, so swooning were we all with pride that any thought of mentioning said fact to Garrick went completely out the window. Garrick knows how to coach. It's his job to be prepared for this. And if Garrick fucks up, at least he's got his goddamn Last Line of Defense. Keep smiling, Jor. You're halfway to paradise.

Notes on the opening of the second half of the game that would change my life forever: After spending most of my time in the locker room at the half re-tuning my psyche and washing out my wounds, I was marvelously refreshed. All traces of the exhaustion I had felt just moments earlier was gone. Focus is wonderful. My Dad was right. I had been missing something all along. I could sense it, now, looking back. It's as though I'm seeing the world through a filter now, a screen, that neatly sorts the world for me into discrete patterns of challenges and adversaries. Providing solutions where none existed before. Giving me confidence in my power to excel. Thus basking in the glow of my newfound strength, I begin to idly see myself applying my powers to my college education and the great wide open of the work world beyond. Maybe politics, after all, like my Dad has always wanted. Hell, I can envision myself going straight to the top. It's all a question of mind over reality, and reality is starting to seem pretty fucking weak.

With these thoughts in mind, we huddle for the second half. Break. Then, out into the Noise once more...

Showtime again.


The majority of the second half is much like the first. A hideous, bitter struggle. We manage to keep our lead, but as the clock ticks ominously downwards towards the final minutes of the last quarter, that lead has closed to four points. This game is everything I could have hoped it would be. A washout would have been nice for the U.A. folks to see, but I'm almost glad that they're not. When the point spread is too great, the final minutes sort of fizzle out as fans leave the stands early, eager to avoid the rush, and the whole thing kind of lurches to an abrupt and anticlimactic halt. There is a reason why all these stories (this one included, by the way) always have it come down to the last minutes, and that is, of course, drama. I can picture the scouts in my mind's eye, the detached and observational expressions fading from their faces as they, too, get caught up in the flood of emotions and find themselves, quite unconsciously, cheering and giving their all towards a simple High School squad perched on the brink of glory.

The brink of glory...

Twenty-Eight to Twenty-Four. Fourth down, and Montrose has been pushed way back into their own territory. Something like twenty yards to the first, due to a picture-perfect sack that has occurred just moments before, leaving the screaming crowds on their collective and breathless feet. The sounds pouring from the bleachers seem like nothing less than the voices of angels.

Montrose is in a bad spot. They're way out of field-goal distance, not that with a four-point spread that it would do much good anyway. They've got an impossible distance to cover in a single down, and if they screw it up, we're in optimum striking distance to bring in a TD and wrap this thing up for the history books. The best they can hope to do is punt here, let us receive, and pray that they can stop us quick on our back line or force a change of possession or something. Then, they'd have to take it all the way to the end zone. A considerable task, but one well within the realms of possibility, so none of us are letting our guard down. Meanwhile, the big illuminated numbers on the scoreboard are telling us that the clock is poised on the brink of the one-minute mark. We're on timeout now, Montrose's final. Garrick is barking at us, but it's almost impossible to hear him over the shattering sussurant roar of raging excitement and the blood rushing through our eardrums. Four quarters of solid noise and light. We're dazzled and dazed but goddamn it, we're almost there. You can almost smell it.

Montrose breaks and snaps into punt formation. The ref spins his arm in a wide circle, and the clock passes into the home stretch. Fifty-Nine, Fifty-Eight...

We begin our rush.

And, once again, time slows.

Because only now do I see who's been let onto the field, for the first time this whole game. Christasion.

Our cleats dig into the turf as we push onwards, ready to receive the ball.

But I know, in that one sickening moment of clarity, that we're never going to get a chance. Because in that one moment, I see everything. Almost too late to do anything about it.

Yes, punting is the accepted thing to do here. Yes, it's the normal thing. Yes, it's the logical thing. In the mind of Coach Garrick, this makes it the only thing. And, indeed, for all intents and purposes, Montrose appears to be getting ready to punt.

But there is another option in these cases. One that has completely slipped Garrick's mind.

They could be bluffing.

I saw this once before. Easter Sunday, 2012. Patriots versus the Steelers, in Pittsburgh. Dad and I were watching the game on my grandparents' big old Satellite Feed to help while away another endless holiday afternoon. New England pulled this one when they were in a similar spot. All set up to punt, but when it came down to the moment of, they simply gave the ball a light tap, recovered it themselves and turned it into a running play, much to the surprise and dismay of Pittsburgh. I turned in disbelief to my father (I had been rooting for the Steelers) wondering if they could really do that. He simply looked at me and said, "Jordan, it's a low down, dirty, and unsportsmanlike thing to do, but it's well within the rules." He then turned his attention back to the game, which New England eventually ended up winning. I never even found out from him whether or not he felt that it was wrong.

At any rate, I gave the matter some thought over a couple glasses of sympathy ginger-ale punch, and I figured that the only reason to fake a punt would be the surprise factor. It's really a stupid play, when you come right down to it. You're putting yourself in an awkward position, having to receive a ball kicked by your own team, and you're really not gaining all that much raw yardage. Plus, there's the risk that the other team will recover your botched punt and be in prime scoring position. In virtually any other situation, a field goal attempt would be preferable. You've gotta hope, one, that you can catch the other team with its pants down, and two, that you're giving it to a runner who could outwit an entire line of onrushing receivers.

A runner, my mind calmly notes in those few hideous seconds, like Jake Christasion.

It's too late to even tell them about it. The play is on.

Unconsciously, I slow my steps.

In sickening slow motion, the play unfolds exactly as I have predicted. And Christasion, looking scared and confused, picks up the ball.

He runs.

There is no word for the speed that Jake Christasion generates. He banks. He turns. He spins on a dime and begins running in new directions. He virtually, to my disbelieving eyes, actually leaps over the defense, at several points. It's amazing. It's astounding. It's positively...

Inhuman...

Ding.

That's it.

History, of course, will always recall the more recent name of Colin Underwood, the flashy young anthropomorphic cheetah who stunned the field of professional football by taking the 49'ers all the way to the roof, but I will tell you now that Jake Christasion had him beat, hands down. The kid was all over the place. Our division had never seen the like. He was like a goddamn...

Yes.

A Goddamn American Jackrabbit.

Oh, there was nothing obvious. No fluffy ears, no whiskers, nary the hint of a cute li'l powder-puff tail. But SCABS can work from the inside out as well as the outside in. Jake Christasion, lacking external features, had probably managed to pass as brain-damaged or LD or something. Whoever his folks were, they probably whole-heartedly supported such assumptions. Anything but SCABS. I might well have been the first person to recognize it. But once you saw Jake Christasion in that light, everything else fell into place like puzzle blocks.

Shit, I observe silently in the heartbeat or so that follows, you'd have to be nuts to put somebody like Christasion on the field. Five times out of ten, faced with the maddening noise and the lights and the oncoming defenders, folks like him would probably just freeze up and wait for the kill. I saw that look in his eyes. Fear. It probably took them months of intensive training just to get him to hammer down the relatively complex concepts of "Take the Ball, Hold on to It, Run Like Hell in the Direction You're Pointed." Five times out of ten, putting Christasion on the field would be suicide.

But the other five out of ten times...

With an air of completely inappropriate cool and rational detachment, I watch as Christasion, carrying the ball, darts and twists his way past every single one of my teammates.

All except me.

My pace begins to quicken again. My heart hammers in my chest. The clock approaches the half-minute mark.

Christasion is coming.

My stride lengthens. My breath rattles. My focus is stern and absolute. The moment of glory.

Closer and closer.

I can see the panicked sweat on his face, the wide and terrified eyes as they focus on me, one last adversary. He actually speeds up. But it will be to no avail. He is mine. I can see the trajectories working out in my brain, lances of white mental fire calculating my speed, his, and the point of our interaction. Reality moves at a crawl. Another stride for me. Another impossibly long leap for him. Seconds stretch into hours. He exists, in my mind's eye, as so much prey, waiting to be claimed.

Milliseconds ebb and flow like the tides.

And then...

My brain starts thinking again...

Jordan? Yoo-Hoo, Jordan?

Shut these damn VOICES up, for crissake! I'm trying to concentrate here!

Hullo? Jordan?

Yes, I testily reply to myself, what the fuck is it?

Isn't this funny, Jor? I mean, this. It had to come down to this, didn't it?

What? I say to myself, getting more and more pissed off.

This, I explain. You. All this intensive training. Working your ass off. All because of your father, and what he's told you about how to run your life. And now, all of that is coming face-to-face with SCABS incarnate. It's almost funny. History repeats itself. The pattern continues. Like father, like son.

Har de fucking har. Shut the hell up!

Right! Right! My brain says, conciliatorily. Shutting up now.

Silence for a few more milliseconds as my focus returns. Another long stride for me. Another for him.

It's just-- begins my brain.

WHAT! I scream at myself.

Well. It's just... I mean... you're actually going to touch him?

I falter. Um... What do you mean?

Touch him! You know. You kind of have to to stop him from running.

Well, yeah! My brain responds.

Right. So... you're okay with this?

Um. My brain is thrown for a loop.

I mean, look what happened with Kim. Don't want a repeat of that, do we? Hell, Jor, you wouldn't even go near Skippy. And you were worried about microscopic scratches on your hands for God's sake. You're openly bleeding now in at least two places, maybe more. Why are you so gung-ho to get up close and personal now?

THIS IS DIFFERENT! I scream. THIS IS MY FUTURE!

Ah... says my brain, somewhat smugly.

SHUT UP! I say, lacking a better response. But it's too late. I'm already trying to think of ways I could stop him while getting as little personal contact as possible. Maybe a throw at the legs, perhaps. Quick shoulder to the gut? How about...

It is a testament to my considerable powers of willpower and concentration that during this entire internal monologue, my pace only slackens by one single half step.

In that one half step, Christasion is past me and into the end zone. Without even giving me time to assume a comical look on my face.

Utter silence.

And the crowd goes wild.

The other crowd.

The clock stops. I am in the process of gazing dumbstruck at the scoreboard as the operator dutifully adds six points for Montrose.

Putting them ahead by two.

It's over.

Downfield, the rest of the Montrose squad is celebrating. Cheers and wild rejoicing. Back-pats all around. Meanwhile, my teammates, long left in the dust by Christasion's impossible run, are also staring blankly at the scoreboard.

Slowly, my attention shifts to Christasion. Standing there, huddled small, clutching the ball like a favorite toy. Montrose has forgotten to include him in their congratulations. Use the SCAB for all he's worth and forget about him in the celebration afterwards.

My eyes go to Jake Christasion's face.

His blank, innocent, childlike face.

Jesus Christ. He doesn't even realize.

He doesn't even realize what he's just done.

All my long hours in training. Sweating blood. Pumping iron. Gazing into the flame, trying to find the center. Good, solid, holy sweat-of-the-brow. All for nothing because of a retard with a pair of jackrabbit legs.

All my future plans. An education at U.A. Playing for the Tide. Law school. A political career. Gone.

And Jacob Christasion couldn't care less.

He doesn't realize that, in this one little moment, he's shattered the foundations of everything I had planned. Wiped away my entire future. Made me look like a dumbass in front of the scouts. In front of the crowd. In front of the whole fucking school. In front of the Team.

In front of Dad...

My blood boils into my throat.

And I am upon him.

He doesn't even have time to run. My fury is mad and senseless and relatively ineffectual, especially with the considerable shielding of the football pads. No damage is done. But, for a long moment we wrestle in silence there in the end zone.

My brain has gone beyond the level of words. My anger is complete, total. It floods my entire being. I am a creature of rage, of violence, of fury.

And then, strong hands pull me back. My teammates, breaking up the fight. Zebralike referees swarm at me, making angry gestures. Garrick is screaming, half at me, half at the universe at large.

I am forcibly removed from the field and told to hit the showers. Garrick promises me a serious yelling-at as I go.

They push me through the gates and close them behind me.

Suffice to say, I do not make it to the showers. I find my steps slowing, dragging, coming to a halt at a point only halfway to the school proper and the locker rooms. Somewhere in the center of the commons. Standing before a tremendous white maple that serves as the central hub of the entirety of the campus area.

Kim's Tree.

Every single leaf has fallen from it in the recent cold snap, save one or two odd tenacious ones near the lower branches. These few sparse remaining leaves serve to accentuate the barrenness of the skeletal form.

A wave of sadness builds in me as I choke back one or two sobs. And then, my movements clumsier than ever because of the bulk of the football pads, I struggle my way up to the first branch. This puts me in perfect position to see the one last dying gasp of a field-goal attempt by Edgerton that falls almost laughably short of the mark.

I see the seconds on the big lighted scoreboard tick down to zero. The final signal goes off, sounding for all the world like one of those damn joy-buzzer things used to give unpleasant surprises to people you try to shake hands with. And it's no funnier.

Final Score: Edgerton 28. Montrose 30.

I've lost everything. Everything.

All because of the Martian Flu.

And I've never even come down with it.

Life is kind of funny that way sometimes, but I'm sure as hell not laughing.

I'm sitting out here in a barren tree, holding back tears and ruining my teeth in rage and anguish and pain under the heartbreakingly clear October sky.

I'm sitting out here in a barren tree, holding back tears and ruining my teeth in rage and anguish and pain under the heartbreakingly clear October sky.


And then, I again realize that I am not alone. Hours may have passed. Days, perhaps even, except I haven't seen the sun come up. Not that I'm expecting any sunrises any time soon.

Regardless, for however long it's been, I've been sitting up here in Kim's Tree, growing increasingly pissed at the world, mainly because I've come to realize how much of a dumbfuck I've been. The scouts weren't interested in the outcome of the game, primarily. They were interested in me as a player. Yes, I missed my chance to be a hero in the last critical seconds. But my performance for the remainder of the night, up until that point, had been stellar. And they would have had to have been blind or stupid or both not to recognize that Christasion's final run was something way out of the ordinary. Had I left it at that, gone over to him and shook hands in the grand sportsmanlike fashion, my reputation would have been salvaged and I might be talking to bigwigs in the Tide right at this very moment.

Instead, they saw me botch a play and utterly freak out. Hitting after the buzzer is one of the more frowned-upon violations of the rules that there is, and I didn't stop with a hit. I was trying to beat the shit out of him. Right there, in front of maybe a thousand dumbstruck fans.

I am damning Jake Christasion in my mind. Because I can't stomach the thought of damning myself. And I'm the one who deserves it.

I can't face my father tonight. Not after what I've done. Not after I publically humiliated him in front of the entire school and his friends from Alabama to boot.

I can, quite possibly, never face my father again.

And that is why I am sitting here in Kim's tree, trying in some strange and metaphysical way to figure out where the hell things went wrong.

I did lose the pads, by the way. I kind of tossed them into the equipment locker after everyone else had departed and slammed the door shut, caring nothing for proper maintenance and upkeep, not at this point. By now, I've slipped back into my warm-up sweats, a far more comfortable set of clothes. In fact, the only point of disturbance about them is the maddening presence of Dad's lighter in the lower left pocket. I almost want to just toss the damn thing away and be done with it, but I don't have the energy. He'll probably demand it back when I next see him for my overwhelming insult to the family name. I don't even care anymore. Idly, I run my thumb over the gold-embossed representation of the Hawk. The goddamn mascot. The team that I've utterly shamed.

Damn Jacob Christasion. Damn Kim. Damn Skippy, while we're at it, just for the hell of it. Damn them all.

And these thoughts go round and round in circles, spiraling in black helices towards the core of my being.

And so there I sit. And sit. And sit.

Until I realize, as noted, that I am not alone.

"J.R.?" Comes the soft voice from below. I blink and peer downwards, searching for the source of the noise. It's quickly locatable. There, standing at a point nearly beneath my branch, is Brian Stockmann. He's out of uniform too, wearing a pair of jeans and a crisp windbreaker. He looks, of course, immaculate.

"Hey." He says, quietly.

"Hey." I croak in response.

"What the hell you doing climbing trees this time a' night?"

"Thinking." I mutter.

"Know what you mean," he replies, cryptically. "You missed Garrick tonight. He was gonna have your ass but good."

"I know." I say. "So, what. Am I off the team, or something?"

He shrugs. "Maybe. Maybe not. He'll probably keep you benched for the next game or two."

"W'nerful." I mutter.

"Could be worse." He says.

"I know." I say, suddenly. "Look, I know it could be worse. Jesus Christ, Brian, I threw the goddamn match and dirtied the reputation of the entire squad. I'm surprised you guys aren't arranging to have me drawn and quartered at dawn."

"Naw." He says, grinning his impeccable grin. "That comes tomorrow evening. Tight schedule, ya know."

Despite myself, I grin.

"Seriously, Jor. You didn't throw the match. One person doesn't win or lose a game. We all were a little bit t'blame."

Good. Someone saying that it's not my fault. I need more people like this. Sooner or later, I might even start to believe it.

"You're just saying that."

"It's true, Jay. I meant what I said at halftime. You were fucking brilliant out there today."

"'Til goddamn Christasion showed up."

He nods. "Yeah. That's another thing. You should have made that hit, Jor. Anybody but Christasion you would've stopped cold."

"Damn straight." I say.

"That wasn't even fucking natural, y'know."

I perk up. From my position on the lower limb, I raise myself to my elbows. "So you noticed, too?"

"Mm hm." He seems to pick his words carefully as he speaks. "I know what people are capable of, Jordan. I know the limits a' what a guy can pull off. Even given the best and most intensive training in the world, there are just some things a guy shouldn't be able to do. And that run was one of them."

"Whaddaya think?" I say, curious as to how far he's gotten.

"Weeeeeell," he says, "Me an' Heldeghast got together for a little while after the game, and we're thinking he's... ah... well, this might sound kinda stupid to you."

"No." I say. "Go ahead."

"We were thinking the guy must be SCAB. Goddamn bunny rabbit or something."

"Yes!" I say. "Yes! That's it. That's exactly what I thought."

"Pretty fucking unfair getting weaseled out of a win just 'cause some jerk-off had some delusions of grandeur after getting bunny-fucked." Says the ever-eloquent Brian.

"Shit right." I say. "Some guy told me this was Christasion's first time on. The shit probably didn't even train or anything. 'S not fair for bastards like him to just waltz onto the field and blow everybody away just cause they're genetic mutants. I mean, the rest of us have to work for it..."

Brian Stockmann nods.

"I mean, Christ, Brian, I was gonna go to Alabama, for crissake. Fucking Alabama. Fucking Crimson Tide. Had the folks from the school watching and everything. And what does Christasion do but show up and run like piss on a fucking griddle and screw over any chance I had of looking good out there."

Brian Stockmann nods again. And smiles, faintly. I'm too caught up in my own thoughts to notice.

"It's not fucking fair..." I say.

"Exactly." He says. I am looking out over the campus, continuing to destroy my teeth by grinding them silently together. I can hardly hear him. "Exactly."

"Brian?" I say.

"Mm hm?"

"What time's it?"

He consults his watch. "'S'like.... oh... one or so."

"Fuck." I say.

"You not going home tonight?" He asks.

Silently I shake my head. I'm squeezing my eyes shut again. Don't break up. Don't break down. Must be stoic, must be strong. After all, we are guys.

Brian seems to make up his mind about something. "Listen, Jor. 'Couple of us are getting together at my place in a while. Heldeghast'll be there, I think. Maybe one or two other guys. You... um... care to join us? We're just gonna crash. Do a little... you know..." He gestures helplessly.

"Commiserating?" I say, blandly.

"Yeah. Commiserating." He smiles. "Interested?"

Almost unthinkingly, I nod. The prospect of someplace warm to sleep other than my father's house sounds too good to pass up.

"All right. I can drive, if you want."

I nod again. There is a brief pause.

"You gonna get the hell out of that tree?" He smiles. I extricate myself, slowly, from the branches and drop to the ground. I dust myself off.

"Ready?" He says.

I nod.

"Good." He says, as we start off towards the distant parking lot. "Y'know something, Jay, you and me are gonna have a little fun tonight..."

"Good." He says, as we start off towards the distant parking lot. "Y'know something, Jay, you and me are gonna have a little fun tonight..."


"Coke?" He says.

"Pepsi's better." I reply. He rummages around in the fridge a little longer and eventually recovers the proper item. He tosses it to me. I catch it.

"Glass?"

"Just outta the can is fine." I crack the soda and begin drinking. Stockmann sits down at his family's kitchen table, backwards-straddling one of the chairs, sipping at his own drink. Brian's house is a nice house. Way out in the boonies on a couple square miles of untouched land, owned by the Stockmann family. Continental decor. Little plates hanging on the wall, commemorating something-or-other. A curio cabinet. A big door to an illuminated porch out back, open to the sky. I like this house. Having lived all of my life in the shoulder-to-shoulder suburbs, there's something primitive and charming about being out in the middle of nowhere like this, one spot of light in acres and acres of darkness.

Brian turns to me. "You wanna hit the stereo while you're up?" He gestures towards the controls. I unthinkingly go over to them before I remember what time it is. "Brian, it's like two in the morning or something. Aren't your folks trying to sleep or something?"

Brian gazes off into the distance. "They aren't here."

"Oh..." I say.

"Dad's at some Pharmacy conference in Santa Fe. Mom's doing D.A.R. stuff in Boston."

"Oh." I say, with a greater sense of closure. "They... like... ship out right after the game, or something?"

He shakes his head. "They weren't there."

"They missed Homecoming? Your folks? Christ, Brian, you were the star of the fucking show! How could they miss it?"

"Well, ya know." He says. "Gotta have our priorities, right?" He toys with a puddle of condensation on the well-waxed wooden surface of the table.

I blink. Suddenly, Brian Stockmann is not the Avatar anymore. He's just a guy. Like anyone else. Whose drive for success just might be a manifestation of his increasingly theatrical attempts to get his parents to acknowledge his existence, parents so caught up in their jobs and their organizations that they often forget that he's even there. Me, I've struggled against my father's disapproval and impossibly high standards. While Brian, perhaps, has struggled against a far greater foe.

Apathy.

We're actually not so different, Brian and me. I wonder which one of us had it worse.

"Well, shit." I say, attempting to lighten things. "They picked a hell of a game to miss. I wish my dad woulda' been off at some meeting or something so he wouldn't'a had to see me totally fuck up at the last second."

Brian just shrugs and smiles, showing the faintest hint of white teeth. "I dunno, Jor. Hard to say."

"Brian." I say, attempting to relay concern and compassion, "If you ever need to talk, or anything, I'm here."

"Thanks." He says. And takes another sip of his soda.

"Anytime." I say.

Just then, I am distracted by a wash of pale light from the front windows. Brian looks up.

"Who's that?" I ask, idly.

"'Told ya a couple of other guys might be showing up. That's probably Stebbins and Heldeghast. An', with any luck, they're bringing the entertainment."

Something about this sounds wrong. I look at him for a moment, but he's already up and wandering towards the front door, still holding his can of soda. Wandering along behind, I follow him, out the door and onto the front lawn just as the car is being shut down. Heldeghast gets out of the passenger side.

"Everything work out okay?" Asks Brian.

Heldeghast smiles. "Yeah." He says.

Stebbins hops out of the driver's door. "Got him." He says, grinning in that wicked little way that he--

Just hold on one fucking minute.

'Him'?

I turn to Brian in point of explanation, but he's already wandering towards the trunk of the car. "Anybody see you?" He asks.

"Nope." Says Stebbins. "Although he was off an' gonna run like a sonofabitch again. Heldeghast hadda whack 'im one good, else he woulda' been gone, man." Heldeghast chuckles, seemingly in memory.

There is a slow, sickening feeling crawling through my viscera. I grin stupidly and uneasily, following behind Momma Duck Brian, seeing no other choice at the moment.

"Pop the trunk, Stebs." Says Brian. He does so. The other three of us stand there in silence as the trunk glides silently open and the overhead lamps come on...

Illuminating a beaten, bruised, humanoid form that--

Motion. Something slashes at my face. I duck back, quickly. Turmoil all about. A split second of commotion, Brian yelling something, then Heldeghast reaches in and delivers a sound whack and the movement stops.

"Jesus Christ, Stebbins. The bastard got a leg loose." Says Brian, moving back towards the trunk. "Think I got some duct tape in--"

Brian looks into the trunk. Silence falls.. Heldeghast is standing there, looking blankly on. Stebbins has come 'round from the front. I approach as well.

The four of us peer into the trunk.

To look upon Jake Christasion. Kind of.

"Fucking Christ." Says Stebbins. "The little shit mutated on us."

And it was true. For all intents and purposes, Christasion had been a normal, albeit weird-looking, human. I recall my Dad telling me, though, that sometimes extremes of emotional duress can force actual physical changes in otherwise static SCAB's. It's like the virus or whatever can be triggered by stress or willpower or whatever. Fucking weird stuff.

At any rate. The figure lying awkwardly there in the trunk with a glassy, stunned look on its face from Heldeghast's most recent whack, bears virtually no resemblance to anything passable as human. The changes have occurred asymmetrically, giving the figure a grotesque and monstrous look. But despite the distortion, Christasion's destination form is easily recognizable. Jackrabbit. I had pegged it right. Not that I feel much of a sense of accomplishment.

As we watch, the skull flattens itself and reshapes slightly. My stomach turns. I think I'm going to be sick. Stebbins laughs. "Christ! He's still doing it!"

"Heldeghast," Says Brian. "Go into the garage and get the duct tape. It's on the workbench. You yahoos didn't do it right the first time."

"Wasn't our fault." Protests Stebbins. "We didn't know the little shit was gonna be pulling this."

"It's not his choice." I say, quietly.

Heldeghast is still standing there, staring at Christasion in a blank, vaguely bovine fashion. Stockmann smacks him. "MOVE!" He says. Heldeghast does, wandering purposefully towards the garage. Meanwhile, Stebbins and I are still staring into the trunk.

"You with us tonight, J.R.?" Says Stebbins, idly.

I can't even respond. Brian picks up my cue.

"Jay's a little bit pissed at the shit this little motherfucker pulled at Homecoming. Ain'tcha, Jay."

To my horror, I feel myself nodding. Stebbins laughs. "You got a right to be pissed, man." I simply nod again. I'm still staring at that thing in the trunk... watching the flesh crawl over its bones...

"Jey-sus. That's somethin' to make y' lose your supper." Says Brian, setting his can of soda on the roof of the car. I don't even remember where mine is.

"You saying he ain't doing that on purpose, man?" Says Stebbins, picking up on a line I had spoken earlier.

Nervelessly, I reply. "No. He's... um... it's just his body reacting to the stress."

Stebbins gets that nasty little grin again. "So, like the more he's hurting, the weirder he starts looking."

"Sounds about right." Says Brian, leaning against the sideboard."

"Fun." Remarks Stebbins.

The dazed look is fading from Christasion's eyes again. His free leg twitches spasmodically, the nascent claws ripping at the fabric of the trunk lining.

"Heldeghast, get back here with that tape..." Yells Brian.

"Can't find it!" Comes Heldeghast's voice, from the garage.

"Jesus Christ. Stebbins, help him out."

Stebbins goes. Christasion's struggles become more focused. He thrashes wildly. Brian dives forwards and pins Christasion's shoulders down. "Get his leg, Jay." He says, calmly.

I do so. I'm starting to feel dizzy. Vertigo. This isn't happening... I'm not doing this...

All those news stories you see... and you wonder what kind of people could do that sort of thing...

People like Brian. Like Stebbins. Like Heldeghast.

Like me.

I halfheartedly push down on his leg. But he's still strong, and he struggles it free from my grasp, giving me a nasty scrape on the forearm as he does so. Brian yells at me. "Jesus, Jay, I said HOLD it!" Helplessly, I grab at it again, and pin it down firmly. "Better." Says Brian.

"Found it!" Comes Stebbins's voice, from the garage. He wanders back onto the lawn, tossing the roll up and down as he goes. Heldeghast follows, his arms full of shadowy objects. "Ya know, Stockmann, you've got a lot of fun stuff in there." He remarks.

"Just get the fuck over here." Says Brian. "He's coming out of it again." Stebbins wanders over, and Brian takes his roll of tape and begins working, doing a pretty thorough job. I release my hold on the leg.

Heldeghast deposits his stuff on the lawn, whatever it is, comes over, and smacks Christasion again, for good measure. Christasion's eyes go blank again, and some more spotty patches of fur worm their way out from under his skin. Stebbins is vastly amused. "Cool." He remarks. He proceeds to snigger a bit.

Meanwhile, I'm just standing there, trying to rationalize this away. And it's not working.

Brian is finishing up his job. He's about to go for the mouth. Desperate to engage my brain in anything but sick contemplation, I say, "Don't bother. He can't speak."

Brian considers this. "Oh. Bunny rabbit, right."

"Fucking SCAB's." Says Stebbins, almost parenthetically.

"Done?" Asks Heldeghast, inspecting the taping.

"Done." Says Brian. "Help me with this retard, Jay. Stebbins, you and Heldeghast get your shit. We're going around back."

Once again, I find myself helpless to resist. I'm too wrapped up in sorting through the mess that is my brain right now to supersede the direct orders of Wonder Brian. I take the again-dazed Christasion by the legs and Brian takes the arms, and together we drag the limp, slowly twisting form out back of the house and towards the woods behind.

"Where we going with him?" I say, blankly, as though inquiring after the positioning of a new sofa.

"Spot out back in the woods. Little clearing. Just so there ain't a mess on the driveway."

Something inside me whimpers. But I can't let go.

Well. You're touching Christasion Now... See, it isn't so bad... Brian isn't worrying about it...

Bearing our horrid burden, we wander down a path into the heart of the woods. My mind has started jingling with inane little rhymes from my childhood about Little Bunny Foo-Foo or something like that... Jesus God, what am I doing here Hopping Through The Forest, Picking Up The Field Mice And oh shit oh shit oh shit... I am conscious of Stebbins and Heldeghast somewhere behind me. Brian brings the lot of us to a halt at a likely-looking clearing, well-shielded from all possible prying eyes, even if the vast distances between ourselves and the rest of civilization didn't make this a near-improbability anyway. He deposits his half of Christasion roughly on the ground. Laughing unbalancedly at myself, I take care to set my half down more carefully...

The other two show up, and dump their shadowy parcels on the ground. I notice a garden hoe. Mother of God...

"Whad'ya get?" Says Brian, looking idly at the stuff

Stebbins holds up what looks like a pellet gun. Brian laughs. "Hey. Where'd you find that?"

Stebbins hands it to him. "Top of the tool cabinet."

"Christ." Says Brian, lovingly preparing the old gun and priming it to fire. "Haven't seen this in years. I was looking for it and everything, couple years ago. Thanks."

"No prob." Says Stebbins.

Brian turns and fires. There is a faint cough of compressed air, and Christasion twitches. Stebbins is over there quickly, inspecting the damage.

"The little bastard's got whiskers, now." Says Stebbins, triumphantly. "Ya musta hurt him a little bit."

"Cool." Murmurs Heldeghast.

"No serious damage with this baby." Says Brian, idly, inspecting the shaft of the gun. "Pretty decent pain, though, I imagine."

The language is what kills me. I never expected it to be so goddamn casual...

Stockmann tosses the gun to Heldeghast. "You want a shot at 'im?"

Heldeghast murmurs an assent, rapidly primes the gun and fires. He misses the first time, much to Stebbins's amusement. The second shot hits home. Christasion twitches again, and he struggles madly against his duct-tape bonds. For the hell of it, Heldeghast shoots him again. Stebbins gives us another status report, seeming to enjoy this little game more and more.

Heldeghast holds the gun out. In my direction. He's not even looking at me. He's just assuming...

The world stands still.

"Take it!" Says Brian, urging me on smilingly. I do so. It sits there in my nerveless fingers like a dead fish.

"'S'amatta, Jay, you ain't never fired a pellet gun before?"

I shake my head, stupidly.

Brian wanders over, gives it a quick prime and hands it bluntly back to me. "Point and shoot. Goddamn Nikon."

Still, it sits there.

"Jay." Says Brian. "Remember the shit this little asshole pulled on you this evening."

With all the force of an opening floodgate, images of my father come rushing back into my mind. I imagine his face. I imagine him looking on as I humiliate myself in front of everyone. I imagine Jake Christasion, standing there in the end zone, clutching the ball to his chest, staring blankly as he neatly annihilates my future...

I feel my muscles moving the gun into firing position. It's like I'm a thousand yards away. Sure. I can absolve myself of guilt that way. "Your Honor, I was a Thousand Yards away at the time..."

I whisper something. Perhaps a prayer or a benediction.

I fire. There is a curiously small amount of recoil. Christasion twitches again. Stebbins hurries over again and takes a look-see. He seems pleased.

"Fucking good shot, Jay! You nailed his eye!"

My guts seethe, boil, and dissolve into the void, leaving a cavernous empty space inside of me.

I feel myself letting the gun slip from my fingers. It doesn't have the chance to. Stebbins, encouraged by my recent success, eagerly bounces over and grabs it from me, anxious to take his turn. He wanders back to point-blank range.

Stebbins never gets a chance to fire. The stress and pain of my shot have twisted Jake's changed leg free of the bonds of the duct tape again, ripping away great clods of fur. Stebbins doesn't notice until too late.

With one fierce, wild, aimless kick, Christasion rips Stebbins's face open.

He screams. Brian runs over to him. Heldeghast kicks Christasion to the temple and he stops struggling. Stebbins is raising Cain.

"MOTHERFUCKINGSHIT! JESUSMOTHERFUCKING SHITFUCKINGSHIT!"

"Shut the hell up, Stebbins." Says Brian.

"I am NOT gonna shut the hell up! You see what that bastard did?!?"

"Yeah. You're bleeding like a sonofabitch. We see. We'll get you to the Emergency Room after we're done. Make up some story about it."

A-ha. A-ha-ha-ha.

Stebbins is working hard not to cry, it looks like. "I don't care about the fucking Emergency Room! This fucker dies!" Stebbins lurches over to the pile of stuff and removes an dented, aluminum cube. I recognize it as an old-model gas-can, suitable for filling lawn-mowers.

He dumps it on Christasion. The petroleum entering his wounds must sting a hell of a lot, because he keeps twitching for a long time, his one free leg moving aimlessly. Stebbins is swearing a blue streak and searching around in the pile of stuff for something, Brian is talking to Stebbins and helping him look, Heldeghast is watching Christasion jerk, and I, as usual, am just standing there.

Suddenly everything goes still.

"Anybody got a match?" Says Brian, calmly.

I do laugh, then. There's nothing else to do. The other option is to go stark raving mad on the spot. I might be doing both, come think of it. I don't even know anymore.

My fingers close around Dad's lighter. Maybe they won't--

"Jay." Says Brian. "What about that goddamn lighter you were always fucking with before practice?"

Here it is. I can sense it. My brain scrabbles wildly for a hold. I'm crushed and folded inside, all packed away and ready for the incinerator. I have shot another living, sentient being this night. My ego curls into the fetal position, whimpering pitifully. Slowly my hand withdraws itself from my pocket, the gleaming silver case catching the moonlight. I've lost. I can feel it already. I've lost.

So it is much to my surprise that I find myself saying, "No."

My ego looks up, an expression of mad hope on its face.

Another moment of silence.

"Well, shit." Says Brian. "Guess I'll just have to get one."

He starts back on the path towards his house.

I scream. A long, drawn-out bellow.

I throw myself onto the prone form of Jake Christasion.

"You will fucking do no such thing." I say. "You burn him, you burn me too." The edges of the lighter case are digging into my palms, and the gold-embossed Hawk is scratching against something.

Brian looks at me like he might a three-year-old. "Jay, stop shitting around. Get off of him."

I shake my head, the fumes from the gasoline making my head spin. I feel no joy, no sense of triumph. My soul is long gone. But this I must do. Because if this is how the world is to work, I want no further part of it. Throwing myself on Christasion isn't just a threat to get them to stop trying to torch him. I seriously mean it, this time. He burns, I burn too. Either way.

"No." I say.

"Jay," Says Brian. "I'm asking you one last time. Get... the... hell... off... him."

"No." I say.

Brian throws up his hands in disgust. "Heldeghast, get him off there."

The impossibly huge form of Erik Heldeghast towers over me.

I kick him. Where it counts. He thunders like a bull moose. Stebbins is screaming at me. Brian's face twists into a sneer. Heldeghast, on the other hand, takes a more direct approach. Still bent-over and grunting because of my cheap groin shot, he pulls the hoe out of the pile of stuff and advances on me, eyes fixed for the kill. He swings it down in a broad arc. It digs deep into my thigh. But I'm past pain, now. I kick at him again, missing this time.

And then, Heldeghast comes at me again, this time holding the hoe in both hands, like a strangling-pole. I catch it outside of his grip and begin pushing back, trying to keep it from my throat. Dad's Zippo falls heedlessly to the ground. Heldeghast is an immobile object. I might as well be pushing against a brick wall.

Adrenaline floods my brain and my muscles, then, in one last-ditch effort. I call upon reserves of strength I never knew I possessed.

Heldeghast's grip falters. He slips.

I go tumbling forward, down, head-over-heels, my impossible effort sending me flying now that Heldeghast has stopped pushing. There is a sickening sensation of light and sound as I smack my head into a tree.

I am about three meters away from Christasion, staring right at him from ground level, dazed and unable to move. But I can still see.

I can see Stebbins as he calmly walks over, retrieves Dad's lighter, flicks it open and alight, and tosses it in a dizzy end-over-end parabola, falling endlessly and slowly towards the puddle of gasoline surrounding Jacob Christasion.

I watch the lighter fall.

Thankfully, it is at this point that my memory goes away.


I have no images that I can recall of Jake Christasion's death. They have been wiped clean from my mind. One last action of divine recompense, perhaps, in exchange for my struggle for his life. I am thankful for that, at least.

In fact, the only time I really realized that I had been present at that moment at all was in my Freshman Biology class at the University of Seattle. We were watching a video on the various specialized adaptations that Nature has given the predator. Something taped off of PBS, or something. Anyway. Point being that after they showed us half a dozen different animals slaughtering half a dozen different other animals, they focused in on the example of the Hawk. Lazily, the big raptor circled around in the clear blue video-taped sky, watching, waiting, almost thinking.

And then, utterly without warning, it dropped like a stone. One of those famous predatory falls. We did not see exactly what it was going for, but milliseconds after it disappeared into the prairie grass, there came a shriek.

I can't exactly describe what that shriek sounded like. All I know is that it's a reasonably famous (but dubiously true) maxim that rabbits live life in absolute silence except for the very instant of their death. And at that very instant, with their last expiring breath, they let out a scream like the howl of a damned soul.

It was that shriek that did it. My brain went away. Kaput. Just like that. I leapt out of my seat in the auditorium, spilling my books and the books of several other students all over the floor, and made a mad, insensible dash for the exit door. I couldn't stay there. I couldn't. Not after hearing that shriek.

I went to the restrooms and threw up.

And then I took the rest of the week off.

But I still can't remember the moment of.

Oh, I remember the moments afterwards well enough. My first memory is crashing blindly through the woods around Brian's house, searching for the highway. I recall finding it after about an hour, and limping painfully all the way back to Edgerton, arriving there along with the dawn. I didn't go home. The first place I went was the School, sneaking into my locker and recovering the street clothes I had stashed there not twenty-four hours earlier when I first went to put on my uniform. Then I went out to the Ditch and burned my gasoline-soaked warmup sweats. I used Dad's lighter to start them going. Funny. I guess I must have picked it up or something on my way out. Like I said, I don't remember a thing. Thank God.

Dad beat the shit out of me when I got home. Let that suffice.

Garrick finally caught up with me, and suspended me for the next two games. I laughed in his face and told him to fuck off. He promptly suspended me for the rest of the season. I promptly quit.

As already noted, against all odds, Seattle accepted me into their academic program, after I rather shamelessly pleaded with them. I gratefully accepted their offer. It was as far away from "home" as I could possibly go without a passport. They didn't care about my football record, and at that point, I didn't either. I have never picked up a ball since that day.

One year into my college education, I took a trip back to see my family. My grades were top-notch, in the high threes and sometimes into the fours, and the Seattle folks were pleased as punch that they had thought me worth the risk. But when the academic day ended and the evening came, I couldn't stop the nightmares, not even with prescription drugs. So I decided to try and confront my demons.

Dad and I went fishing.

We had a cabin up on Lake Vermillion in the North Woods. There, far away from any civilization to speak of save other cabin-owners, we readied a boat and our tackle, and spent the day like fathers and sons have done ever since man invented the fishhook. There, on the peaceful waters, alone in a boat with my Dad, the mists swirling around and muffling the distant cries of the water-birds, I finally found myself ready. We were alone. Where no-one else could hear.

"Dad." I said, haltingly. "I was there the night Jake Christasion got killed."

I had intended to make it some sort of confessional or something. To tell good ol' Dad the guilt I had been harboring in my heart for so long. Dad had the power. Dad could make everything all right. Dad would understand how life can sometimes go horribly wrong. Granted, Dad wouldn't approve of the fact that I did something like that (I had to believe that, at least), but Dad would look at me and tell me that everything was going to be okay. I was going to tell him how I had helped Brian and Stebbins and Heldeghast drag him out to the woods and that I had shot his eye out with a pellet gun, but that when it came to actually killing him, I had fought tooth and nail to the last ounce of my strength to stop it.

I didn't have the chance. He stopped me after the first sentence.

"I know." Said my Dad. He always knew.

"I had it covered. Don't worry about the charges." Dad controlled everything. Everything.

A brief pause.

"You did good."

The bottom dropped out of my brain that day.

I realized, in that one sickening moment of clarity, everything that had happened. How I had unwittingly and unknowingly damned myself by allying with the one man that I thought I could trust in a world gone mad.

My father.

I was silent for many hours afterwards. I thought I was just being contemplative, for a while, but I soon began to realize that I simply could not talk. Not in the presence of my father. My vocal cords would just freeze up and I couldn't make a sound, not even upon pain of death. Dad and Gloria took me to a bunch of specialists after they began to realize that something was seriously amiss with their child, and the specialists all said that I had "Acute Idiopathic Hysterical Aphonia." Which basically meant that they couldn't find a damn thing wrong with me so it had to be in my head.

I guess I kind of realized the reasons for it. I got the vague sneaking suspicion that I was somehow emulating Jake Christasion in my silence, sacrificing my voice for his life. But there was more. My father's voice was always his power. His control. His means of shaping the world to his will. And to my horror-struck brain, this was exactly the thing that I would not, could not let myself have.

He beat me senseless, screaming at me, demanding that I talk to him. It only made my silence more complete.

At the end of the summer I moved back to Seattle. And I never went back. Not even after my father was ambushed by a SCAB hooker he picked up on West Street and reduced to about four years of physical age. In any other era of my life I would have waltzed back home, my heart singing, and beat the shit out of him, his physical power over me quite gone, repaying him for a lifetime of pain. I hardly even gave the matter a second thought. I didn't go back home when my newly-young-again father re-took up his political career (his brain was unaffected by the rejuvenation) and was promptly denounced as a SCAB himself after he supposedly shifted some guy that he touched after a political demonstration, in what I will always believe was a carefully-orchestrated plot to destroy his name. I didn't even go back home when my father was diagnosed with AIDS, his lifetime of sexual promiscuity coming to collect the rent at last. (I notice that, despite her grief, Gloria never worried that she might too be infected. Sexual contact between the two of them must have fizzled out long before.) Nothing in the world could have made me come back home.

Not until today.

My father's funeral is tomorrow. And when I have finished my task of helping to bear that impossibly small coffin to the grave site, I will be making a speech. I am the eldest son. And the burden of performing his elegy will fall to me.

It will be the first time I have spoken in my father's presence in over three years.

My name is Jordan. It is a Hebrew name, the name of a river in the Holy Land. My mother gave me that name, I am told. It means, quite descriptively, "To Flow Downwards." I think that sums up most of my life so far. Except now, things are different. My father is dead. The tyrant has fallen. Edgerton was a single community molded into my father's image, the first small step towards his philosophical conquest of all. Had he become mayor of the City, the entire greater urban area would have followed suit, and the same thing that happened to Skippy Martens, and Kim DeJong, and poor Jake Christasion would have happened to a city of millions with a SCAB population amongst the highest in the Western World.

And now, he's gone.

And just like my Angora Rose, Edgerton can finally begin to peek out from underneath two decades of waste.

My name is Jordan. But that is not my only name.

My name is Jordan Robert Atwell Barnes. And I am my father's son.

Silently, I make my way from Piergeron Stadium and effortlessly complete my walk, bringing me to the Fourth Corner which is also the First.

The sun trembles on the edge of the horizon.

And with a deep breath, I finally leave the perimeter Fence and strike my way boldly inwards to the Center.

To where I've been going all along.

To Kim's Tree.

epilogue

Silently, I make my way from Piergeron Stadium and effortlessly complete my walk, bringing me to the Fourth Corner which is also the First.

The sun trembles on the edge of the horizon.

And with a deep breath, I finally leave the perimeter Fence and strike my way boldly inwards to the Center.

To where I've been going all along.

To Kim's Tree.


I stand once again before the monolithic While Maple that has seen so much of my life come and go. It's fully flocked in leaves now, and the difference between the Tree now and the Tree on that Homecoming Night so many, yet so few, years ago, is quite refreshing. One cannot even see all the way to the top, for all the greenery. Vision ceases at about two meters, in fact.

Which means there's hope. Even though I can't see a damn thing.

Sometimes, I tell myself, you just have to have faith that things are going to work out regardless. Because there are some things that you just can't control.

I close my eyes. I hold my breath. A faint smile plays upon my lips. I incline my head and extend my arms outwards until I am standing in a posture of ecstasy.

Sometimes you just gotta believe...

"Kim." I say.

Silence.

And then...

"What took you so long?"

My heart hums, keeping time with thousands of old songs that have leapt spontaneously into my head upon hearing that voice. Warmth floods my being. We've come full circle now. And the healing can begin.

"I was taking a walk." I say, simply.

"I know." Says the as-yet-unseen voice. "I've been watching you. Doing the perimeter thing?"

"Yep." I say, casually, though careful observers might note that my jaw trembles slightly.

"You find anything?" She asks.

"More than you could ever possibly imagine."

"I can imagine quite a bit, Mister Jordan Barnes. I walked it myself before you showed up." A pause. "You got a light?"

My joy sours a smidgen. I finger the heavy silver casing in my pocket. "Didn't know you smoked, Kim."

"Didn't need to when I knew you. Being a SCAB takes a lot out of you."

"I imagine." I say.

"You didn't answer my question, Jay."

"No." I say, still fingering my father's lighter. "No, I don't."

"Shit." She says. A moment's pause. "Well, I'm trying to quit anyway." With a few rustles and a bump, a new package of cigarettes falls from the upper branches. "Jordan, be a dear and smush those for me."

I do so. "Smushed." I say.

"Good." She says.

"So." I say. "What brings you back here?"

"You kidding, Jay? I live near here."

"Thought you moved away."

"My parents did. Soon as I got of age I moved back to the City. I'm taking classes at MacLeod. Pre-law."

"Quelle Coincidence," I say, remembering two words of French that I seem to recall as having gone together well.

"You're goin' into Law too, huh? Go fig." She says. "Politics, maybe, for me. I like the sound of 'Councilor DeJong.'"

"You go, girl." I say, blandly, but pleasantly..

"Anyway, I had to come back. This was the battleground. These were the front lines. This is where the world was changing for us."

"My father's dead, Kim. Things've changed already."

"I know." She says, quickening her speech a bit. "I know, Jordan. That's why I was hoping you'd come here. You're in a prime position to strike a blow for social justice, here. I mean, can you imagine what it would do to those Humans First bastards if Barnes's own son got up there and slammed him during his elegy? They'd be annihilated."

"They're going to be anyway. Regardless of what I say up there tomorrow."

"Jordan, the man was a monster. We're just scratching the surface of his life, and man, things are coming up fast."

"Kim..." I say, quietly.

"He killed people, Jordan. He was a murderer. They say he carried a switchblade around just so he could up and off anybody that made him angry..."

"Kim..." I say, a bit more loudly.

"I mean, we're even uncovering evidence that his first wife was done in by foul play. They're even suggesting that maybe she came down with SCABS or something and that's why he wiped her out. We've got circumstantial evidence only, Jay, but hell..."

"Kim..." I say, with ever-increasing loudness.

"That was your mother, Jordan. The man might possibly have killed your mother. All you'd have to do up there is tell like ten percent of the stuff that we've got proved and the Humans First cause would be routed for good--"

"KIM!" I scream.

Silence.

"For God's sake, Kim. He wasn't a cause. He wasn't a movement. He wasn't a symbol. He was my father. And for the sake of my stepmother and my siblings, I will not turn his funeral into a political action. No matter what he did with his life."

"You're gonna get lynched up there." She says, simply. "We've got a whole hell of a lot of people that are gonna be on the other sides of those police barricades, screaming at you, throwing stuff, the whole ball of wax."

"I'm prepared for that."

A slight pause. "I'm gonna be among them, Jay."

"I know." I say. "Chief of the Angry-Sign-Waving Committee, right?"

"Hey." She says, lightly. "We all have our talents."

Another pause.

"A bunch of us are going to get together afterwards, have a few drinks and stuff. Some bar somewhere on the south side. I suppose it would be silly of me to ask if you wanted to join us."

"Considering that I'd be dead, yeah."

"Right."

"I don't suppose you'd care to come along to the grieving reception, or anything. Bunch of my family getting together to eat and come together and network and stuff."

"And they'd welcome having me around because...?"

"I don't know, Kim. Moral integrity?"

She chuckles. I still can't see her.

"Moral integrity. Right. I like that."

"Right." I say. "Y'know, Kim, hanging around with a lot of unhappy surviving relatives doesn't really sound like my idea of a good time. Can I assume that your sitting around in a bar with a bunch of whoevers getting sloshed off your ass celebrating somebody's death would be similarly unpleasant for you?"

"You may." She says.

"Great." I say. "Then let's both play hooky."

"Hm?" She says.

"Meet back here tomorrow, after the fact. Han's Chinese is still open. I saw it on the way here. We could get some carry-out and bring it back here and have supper together."

"I dunno, Jay. Doc's say I should stick to fruits and stuff. There are disadvantages to being a lemur."

"Candied Bananas..." I say, in a singsong-y fashion.

"Mm..." She murmurs, pleasedly. "Jay, you really know how to make things difficult, don't you."

"Hey." I say, equally lightly. "We all have our talents."

"Okay. You got me. Is it a date?"

My heart swells into my throat. "Yep. A date."

"Looking forward to it." She says.

Pause.

"So. What do we do now?"

"I dunno." I say.

"How 'bout another Chat?"

I've got a topic.

Jordan Barnes: Good or Evil?

Neither. Or both. The question is moot and should be thrown out. Frame a new resolution. Reconvene in an hour. We'll start again from scratch...

"Kim, let's not debate anything tonight. Let's not take sides. Can we, just for tonight, sit back and observe? Just for once?"

"All right." She says, sweetly.

There is the rustle of leaves and the shudder of successively-descending branches. And then, Kim DeJong-- black and white stripey tail and all -- is there before me, perched gracefully on the lowest branch, peering at me through the thick leaves.

"C'mon." She says, extending one black paw to me. "You can see everything from up here."

I place my hand in hers without a moment of thought.

And, with the capable help of my friend Kim DeJong, I finally manage to climb to the very highest point I can possibly reach on the Tree that has been the center of my life for as long as I can remember.

And as the sun finally sets in the West, I look out over the broad expanse of the campus, and further out over the lawns and homes and shops, and even further out to the vaguest suggestion of the lights of the City far in the distance to the East, and onwards to the horizon, and infinity itself, beyond.

"You know," I say to Kim, "You're absolutely right."


fin

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