This is a long one folks. I’d love to hear your thoughts. It has some problems for sure.
David rode his bike to the back of the apartment complex where he had first gone with Joey two years earlier after school. He leaned on his left side while holding the handle bars since he still felt the impact of the stroke in his right arm. When he used that arm too strenuously pain shot from his wrist to his shoulder and he thought of Joey. Joey was dead now.
He leaned his bike against a fence and looked at the entrance to apartment 17c. The mailbox was rusty and the white front door had scuff marks at the bottom from someone kicking it. There was a cracked squirt gun on the ground but Michael was nowhere around. David thought that was for the best.
As he walked to the door, he fought back a rush of memories that he buried deep down for more than a year. They smelled like burning. They sounded like screaming. They felt like guilt and they felt like anger.
The buzzer was hanging out of its fixture by a wire. He knocked with his left hand, his good hand. After a few seconds, he put his ear to the door and could hear the sound of the TV; someone was hawking a glorified potato peeler on the Home Shopping Chanel. He knocked again.
The door opened only a few inches, the chain of a dead bolt kept it from opening further.
There she was.
The past two years had added faint crow’s feet to her face and strands of grey to her red hair.
He had words rehearsed, but they were gone. They ran away.
“I need your help, Alice.”
She looked down. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Sorry for everything.” She started to close the door. “There’s nothing I can do for you now.”
“Please.” David’s voice cracked, a reminder to Alice that though he had grown he was still a boy. “After everything, you owe me. I need your help reaching my family… and Joey.”
David sat at his desk in the middle of Mrs. Radcliff’s 6th grade English class unfolding a note from Joey. Mrs. Radcliff separated their seats earlier in the week. She said they got along too well, talked too much, didn’t pay attention and disturbed the students that were interested in learning.
David waited until the teacher had her back turned and then looked down at the note.
“Come with me after school to see this woman Alice. She is a WITCH. I want to learn!”
In the corner of the crumpled piece of paper was a crude drawing of Mrs. Radcliff’s severed head.
She saw his hands fidgeting with the paper, stopped speaking and walked towards him.
“Hand me that note, Mr. Paterson.”
David looked back at a wide-eyed Joey who was of no help, turned back, threw the note in his mouth, and swallowed it.
Mrs. Radcliff stopped. “David!”
Joey broke out in laughter. David looked back at him, proud of himself, as the sharp edges of the paper hurt his throat on the way down.
“Mr. Patterson and Mr. Watkins, both of you will be joining me for detention tomorrow.” She paused and put her eyes on David. “Mr. Patterson,” she said, “I will be calling your father. He and I had a nice chat at parent-teacher conferences the other night. He is concerned about your performance.”
After school, David and Joey rode on their bikes along the roads between Earl Warren Middle School and the apartments at the other side of town. David lagged behind a little as he usually did on their bike rides together.
“How do you know about this woman?” he asked.
“I only met her once. I think she was drunk. She was saying she can do witchcraft stuff. Her kid is that little kid Michael. When your parents don’t want you to go out, I ride my bike around with him. I asked if she could teach me and if I could bring a friend.”
David’s stomach cramped as he tried to keep up with Joey.
“I can’t let my dad know I’m doing this.”
When they came to the apartment, Michael was sitting on the pavement playing with Ninja Turtles. He hopped to his feet when he saw Joey.
“I’ll tell Mom you’re here,” he said. He looked at David, suspiciously. “Who are you?”
Joey put his hand on David’s shoulder. “This is my friend,” he said. Michael shrugged his shoulders and walked inside.
Alice was sitting on the couch when they came in. She had a faded bruise under her left eye that Michael fixated on.
“Just a little today boys. It takes time.”
Joey was eager. “When did you learn?”
“I was seventeen. My mom threw me out. I was living on the streets of New York and pregnant with that one.” She pointed a finger at Michael. “A man taught me the basics but it takes years to really learn, master it. You know.” She stood up. She had on a light dress with no stockings and no shoes. She had a rose tattooed on one ankle and the name Michael in cursive on the other.
“Mom can do anything she wants,” chimed in Michael as he grabbed fruit punch from the fridge and poured it into a white cup with a picture of Fred Flintstone on it and a small crack running along the side. “She talks to the dead and can read minds and can change the weather and can hurt people just by thinking hard.” He stopped for air. “But no telling the future, that’s bullshit.”
Alice turned her head quickly. “Michael, what did I tell you about language?” She put a cigarette in her mouth and lit it. “Take your juice and go outside!” The crack in the cup Michael was holding seemed to spread and some juice dripped out onto the floor.
He frowned and left without looking at David or Joey and let the door close quickly behind him, making a loud crash that caused Alice to cringe. She shook her head and bit her bottom lip. She didn’t notice Michael standing on a little plastic chair outside and peeking in through the window in the kitchen.
David looked at Joey. He wanted to leave, but he valued his friendship. It was the only one he had. He didn’t want some little seven-year old like Michael filling the void.
“You use your feelings,” said Alice. “And your awareness of everything around. Everyone has the ability to do it, but you have to focus, you have to want it. If you want it, you can have it. It’s that easy.”
“Use your feelings?” asked Joey.
Alice tapped her cigarette in an ash tray and then sat down and crossed her legs on her stained purple carpet. She patted the ground, summoning the boys to join her. “The bad ones. Tap into them and bring them to the front of your mind.” She put a finger on her forehead. “The things that hurt you and the things that scare you. You use them to shape the world the way you want it.” She locked eyes with Joey as David sat staring at the floor, feeling awkward.
David looked around Alice’s apartment. It didn’t smell like smoke anymore and the purple carpet had been replaced by a light brown one that didn’t have stains on it. There were two glasses sitting on the table in the TV room. David stood with his arms crossed as Alice picked them up and put them in the sink.
“I haven’t done this is a while,” she said.
He did nothing to acknowledge what she said.
She walked to a closet and opened the door. There were boxes and folded laundry piled on the ground. She stood on top of them and reached for a milk-crate on a top shelf. There were candles in it and incense, and dusty books.
“Have you heard from his family?” she asked as she put the crate down on the table and started taking out the candles and a box of matches.
“I know his Mom is in Carrier Clinic still. She never left.”
Alice made a groan. “That’s terrible.”
David took a seat. He looked out of the same window that Michael had peered into two years before. “Worse can happen.”
Alice lit the candles and smoke hung in the air. David breathed it in and fought back the reflex to cough and blinked his eyes to keep them from watering up. He heard about this from Joey, but never participated. The need to communicate, for closure, pushed him passed reluctance.
“We will do this together, David. I will go into your mind and we will contact them together. I need you to close your eyes and let me in.”
He felt Alice’s touch against the tense muscles of his hand. Her fingers were light at first then they pressed with warmth and he closed his eyes. Alice opened a door in his mind and unleashed a solid tide of thoughts, raw and untarnished from previous exposure.
“Are you coming to Alice’s after school?”
David shook his head. “She’s insane.”
“Okay man, just don’t let Michael hear you say that. That little kid is crazy if someone is mean to his Mom.”
David took a book from his locker and closed it as Joey stood behind him waiting, empty handed. They walked to class together.
“Where’s your English book, dude? Mrs. Radcliff’s gonna be pissed.”
Joey shrugged. “I don’t care.” They approached the doorway. Other kids went running past them as the third period late bell rang.
“My family’s crazy,” said Joey. He made a fake laugh. “My Mom was brought to the mental hospital again last night.”
“Heh,” said David. He felt cold and awkward and sad. They started walking to their seats. “Hey Joey, my Dad video-taped some Tales from the Crypt episodes. You should come over and watch some with me.”
Joey stood in front of his desk and Donald Rooney walked by bumping hard into his shoulder. “Watch it jerk,” he said. Donald shot him a sneer from behind his shoulder.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m getting acquainted with your mind. I need to if I’m going to connect you with them. Otherwise it’s just me telling you what they say and that’s not the same. This way, I’m just the link, but it’s you doing the talking and the listening. You have to be patient. Are you gonna be patient?”
Nights of little sleep and the burden of guilt had burnt any patience David ever had but he thought it better to lie. “Yes.” His eyes were still closed. The smell of candles and incense was getting stronger and Alice’s hand still pressed on his own.
“I’m going where it hurts now,” said Alice.
David sat at the lunch table and picked at his room temperature cafeteria food. He was too worried to eat. He thought about the progress report that would be coming in the mail. Joey sat across from him and squeezed a ketchup packet into a carton of chocolate milk.
“Debbie McCalester has a face like a pizza but her hooters are coming in nice.”
David laughed. “Are you still going to that woman’s house?” he asked.
“Alice. Yeah,” said Joey. “I’m getting better too.” He stared at a French fry on David’s tray. At first it twitched, then it rose in the air. He opened his mouth but it floated past him and landed on the floor. “What are you doing after school?” asked Joey.
“I have to go home. It’s my little sister’s birthday party. My Dad’s got some sort of helium tank for balloons. Whatever.”
Donald came walking passed their table on his way to the garbage with an empty tray. Joey saw him coming with a forced swagger and the joy left his face.
“Joey,” he shouted. He was a few steps away. “I heard your mother’s crazy. She’s like in some kind of home or something.”
David lifted his hands off the table. It was vibrating. The empty chair next to him shifted to the left and a textbook that rested on top of it fell to the floor. He watched Joey clench his fists, making his fingers flushed and tight. A girl sitting at the table next to David looked over at them, her eyes spoke alarm as Joey stood up. Mr. Hernandez, who had lunch duty on Tuesdays, spotted the incident brewing from across the room.
“Shut your fucking mouth!” Joey thrust his finger through the air, maniacally, startling the girl whose friends now joined her to watch. Donald, only encouraged by the show, kept coming. His swagger grew more exaggerated with his arms out at his sides. A silver necklace hung around his neck.
“Look at this,” he mocked. “You’re crazy too. Maybe you want join your mom in the looney bin.”
David was looking at Joey and saw he had started to cry. He wished Joey would sit down and stay out of trouble but he too wanted Donald to hurt. Joey shook his head like a rabid dog. Spittle came from his lips like foam as his lips fluttered from violent shaking. Donald coughed and grabbed at his neck. “Fuck you,” Joey yelled. “Fuck you. You motherfucker. I’m tired of you and your shit you motherfucker.”
Donald turned purple and fell to the ground. There was a collective gasp in the room. Mr. Hernandez pushed aside herds of children and kneeled over Donald. David stood on top of his chair and saw Donald’s face turn purple while he struggled to breath. The silver necklace was strangling him.
“Stop,” yelled David. “Stop! You’re gonna kill him.” Mr. Hernandez looked up at David with confusion. He was trying to get his fingers underneath the silver pulled taught around Donald’s neck. David came down off of the chair, crawled over the table and hugged his friend. Joey was standing with his hands over his eyes as tears flowed freely and blood trickled from his nose and out of the side of his mouth. More teacher’s had gathered, ushering students to their seats. Joey fell to a ball on the hard floor.
He looked up at David. “My head hurts,” he said. “Bad.”
The necklace loosened and snapped in Mr. Hernandez’s hands. Donald took an audible breath and the purple fled his face, relieving David’s creeping tension. He cared for Joey, his only friend, and he worried about him, but now there was fear, of what he had become and what he could do.
Joey had another detention, for cursing a storm in school. Only David knew the truth of what had choked Donald. The teachers believed it was a freak incident that prevented a fight from breaking out: a necklace kinked or caught on a student’s clothing. Walking home from school, David ruminated.
His mother caught him at the front door with mail in her hand. “Another progress report.” She waived the slip at him. “You are failing Health and your English teacher says you disturb the class. Your father will not be happy to see this.”
He shrugged his shoulders and avoided eye contact. “Whatever.” First and second grade girls were starting to fill the house for his sister’s party. He walked past them, dragging his book-bag on one shoulder and trudged to his room.
The progress report was on the table for David’s father – Greg Patterson – to see when he came home. He looked at it, set it down and ate cake with the rest of the party while David sat upstairs reading comics he borrowed from Joey. When the party ended Greg went upstairs and knocked on David’s door.
“David, I want to talk to you about the progress report that came in the mail.”
David opened the door and sat down on his bed. His father sat next to him.
“This is unacceptable.”
David rolled his eyes.
“You can do better than this and I know it. I’ve spoken to your teachers about it, Mrs. Radcliff especially. We agree that a lot of this has to do with who you choose as friends.” He paused. David crossed his arms. “That is going to change right now.”
The doorbell rang. Someone downstairs went to open it.
“David,” called his mother from the door. “It’s for you. It’s Joey.”
As his father protested, David walked around him and ran down the stairs without listening. He could see Joey standing at the front steps with tears in his eyes and he wanted, as his friend, to comfort him. Outside, Joey was holding tight to a railing along the front steps while looking down at his hand. He was flushed all over. His hair stuck up straight in spots and smalls beads of sweat spotted his forehead and clung in his eyebrows. David wasn’t sure if he was angry or sad or even remotely himself.
“Hey, can you hang out for a little bit?” Joey said as David approached the screen door. David came out on the steps in his bare feet and closed the screen door and the solid wood door behind him.
He tilted his head to try to look Joey in the eyes. “Dude, it’s too late. Plus, my Dad is kinda pissed right now.”
“Pissed about what?”
“Oh, who cares man,” said Joey, still looking down. “My Dad was drunk on the couch. I threw the thing in the trash. I had to feed my little brother. I’m so sick of that man. I came over on my bike as fast as I could. I feel like I need to get away or something. My head is going to explode man.”
David felt a weight descend upon his shoulders and his head like the air had become fuller, heavier, angrier. It was hot and thick and made him want to go inside. The doors behind him opened and his father stepped outside, increasing the palpable feeling of tension. Joey finally lifted up his head, fully revealing his red eyes and the dark bags underneath them, and stepped backwards from the steps onto the lawn.
“David,” said Greg. His voice was firm. “You need to come inside.”
Joey interrupted before David had time to say anything. “Come on Mr. Patterson, just a little while.”
“I’m sorry Joey.” He looked at him and adjusted his glasses. “Jeesus, my head hurts.” He shook to refocus. “Joey, David is not allowed to speak to you anymore.” Greg’s hands started to shake and he put them on his temples. David heard the thick limb of a large tree crack high above his head. His father took one hand and put it on his shoulder, not to cajole him inside but to steady himself.
With an angry frown, Joey stepped backwards again, his steps sounding like earthquakes in David’s ears. His shoulders sloped down and he ran his fingers across the top of his head, flinging droplets of sweat into the air.
“Joey,” said David, afraid. “Calm down, please.”
He looked at his father whose nose had started to bleed and held his hand. It was clammy and afraid unlike the strong paternal hand he was accustomed to.
Greg fell with the force of his weight pushing him forwards, trying to hold on to the railing but managing only a weak grip that failed to keep him tethered to the steps. David too was unable to keep him steady. He tumbled hard to the ground, undignified and without grace. David heard his pants tear and winced, the sound alone bringing a terrible feeling of remorse and regret. As he looked at his father sprawled on the ground his own head began to throb. His eyes then blurred like they had suddenly been layered over with clouds and he heard a bang so loud he shuddered. It was one of the tires blowing out on his father’s car. Greg rolled in a series of painful movements onto his back and sat upright.
David’s Mother ran outside. “What the hell is going on?” She saw Greg on the ground with blood cascading from his face and onto his shirt. She bent down to pick him up and put her arms underneath his armpits. He threw up bile and blood on her back and in her hair. She screamed and looked back at his face. His eyes started to turn red, a shade darker every second.
“David!” she screamed. “What happened to your father?! Tell me now, tell me right now David! Now!”
“I don’t know Mom, I don’t know.” He looked at Joey who was sitting on the grass with his head in his hands, rocking back and forth. He thought then all of a sudden that perhaps it would have been better if he never met Joey at all.
Greg’s body went limp and pushed on top of his wife like a sack of heavy dirt. She slouched onto the ground which was muddy from vomit. “Greg!” She pushed him to his side and kneeled next to his face. She was looking at him when his eyes bursted out of their sockets and on to her button-down shirt. A mucous-like white ooze that neither she nor David had ever seen anything like began to slide out of the empty holes in his face. Continuing with inhuman screams of terror and loss, she stuck her finger nails into the sides of her face like claws. In what looked like one movement she made an effort to stand but instead fell to her back.
David shook Joey by his shoulders with fury and made his head snap back and forth like a ragdoll. “Joey! Joey! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stoooop!” He slapped him in the face and then grabbed him by the air and pulled on his head. “Please! Pleeeeeeease!”
Joey looked through bloody eyes. “I can’t. I don’t know how.”
Yet another loud noise echoed from inside the house and a high-pitched hissing followed. The helium tank exploded and shattered the kitchen window into thousands of pieces. Glass showered the lawn and cut David’s body from above. A broken gas line in the house added a second hissing. Joey tried to scream but he couldn’t, he blew a fuse and something in his head wasn’t working anymore. He looked back from the explosion to see his friend’s headless corpse; a bloody stump on top of a limp body. Like the tank for the party balloons, Joey’s head exploded from pressure.
Entire sections of the house went flying. Bricks and jagged pieces of vinyl siding fell from the heavens. Plumes of smoke grayed the sky and mad flames danced where David’s home had been seconds before. His mother, his sisters, and the remains of his father’s body were eaten by the inferno.
The firemen dragged his body to an ambulance and put a mask over his face. He couldn’t understand or answer any of their questions. From their mouths came unintelligible gibberish. He couldn’t move his right arm either.
Sitting at Alice’s table, David felt a painful prickling in his right arm. He had only recently re-taught his brain how to use the arm and with that re-learned ability came pain. Other parts of his recovery, the emotional parts like forgiveness, saw less dramatic progress. Though he shouldn’t have, he opened his eyes and looked at Alice, who, aside from himself, was the focus of his blame.
He closed his eye again, because, despite his anger, he wanted this to work.
Outside, Michael walked to the door and opened it enough to see David, his face cringed and filled with visible anger, seated next to his mother. He closed the door without making a sound and paused. That kid was Joey’s old friend, he thought, and when he had come over the house in the past he never spoke much, as if he didn’t like him or his mother, and now, with the death of Joey and his family, the kid really did have something not to like. He walked to the window and stared through it like he had two years before. This time he looked through it not out of curiosity, but out of concern. With abilities he obtained from watching his mother over the course of his life and hearing pieces of conversations here and there, he focused on David and his thoughts. He saw sorrow most of all, but entwined within the twisted nerves and broken memories he saw a desire for vengeance.
David crossed the threshold between the living and the dead. A torrent of emotions came to him; then a voice. It was everyone’s in one: his older sister’s, his younger sister’s, his mother’s, his father’s, and Joey’s. Together, they spoke.
“The world is of danger.”
David flinched. Alice too shuddered at the sound when it formed words. It was masculine and feminine, dead and alive.
“There is no escape. Before you and long after you. Life will suffer and perish. The fault is not yours, nor is it anyone else’s.”
Though intended for David, Alice, as the intermediary, couldn’t help but hear it and take it to heart. When it finished a weight lifted from her. David sat straight, still upset, but less tense. Thoughts were still cycling in madness through his mind: visions and feelings too complicated for words. Alice continued to read his thoughts and understood them as the aftermath of trauma.
Michael, peering from the outside and sifting through the worms in David’s brain, saw hatred and destruction. Flames were billowing from the ground and heads were exploding. Glass was raining from a smoke-filled sky. There was a force in his home prepared to destroy the woman that raised and protected him.
Through the dirty window he watched, his face not moving a muscle. David’s head met the table hard and when Michael heard it he silently praised himself. He heard his mother yell and saw her stand from her seat and shake him. He couldn’t make out every detail of his mother’s face but he could tell that she was crying and he felt the cold staleness in the air that always came every time she was upset.
He saw her stand and look over the dead body slouched at the kitchen table as she apologized. He had had enough. He wanted to end her crying and tell her it would all be okay, so opened the front door and walked inside.
“I couldn’t let him hurt you Mom. It was all in him. Even if he didn’t do it this time, he would have done it eventually, somehow. He would have broken in at night and strangled you. I saw it.”
Alice looked at her son. “Jesus Christ, You don’t know that Michael. The kid lost everything. He watched his family burn to death. He had a fucking stroke! He couldn’t think Michael, of course there are things like that in his head!”
The temperature in the room rose with Alice’s rage and a small crack stretched across the window glass that Michael had been staring through. A pipe under the kitchen sink started to spray water onto the linoleum floor. Michael looked around and saw an empty plastic water bottle on the counter crumple into a ball. He looked at his mother with a face of apology, too weak to say anything. His head pounded and he put his hands to his ears. His knees turned to liquid and he fell to the ground.
Alice saw in her mind what Michael had seen so many times; pictures of herself being punched and kicked, slapped and having her hair pulled by men. She saw angry faces screaming at him. She saw herself bruised and bloodied cowering in the corner of her filthy apartment. She felt the terror that was his childhood. She relaxed the tension in her muscles and picked Michael off the ground.
When darkness came she backed her car to the door of the apartment and popped the trunk. Michael threw a series of garbage bags in and closed it. They drove around town all night throwing the dismembered remains of David Paterson into dumpsters.
After they dropped the last bag they went to a grocery store to get eggs and milk and a new notebook Michael needed for school. When they came back to the car Michael turned to his mother. “It’s better this way,” he said. “He would have lived without his parents, without people to love him and to protect him.” Alice turned the keys in the ignition and Michael continued. “I wouldn’t want to live that way.”