The day had been a long one. The homework assignments had been hard ones. With Sally’s aversion to math class, he had to study a little more than the others just so he could give her reliable answers. Yeah, he was probably enabling her in a fashion that would bite her in the b**t down the road, but hey… the way she looked at him when she got those answers. Some of the guys had to manage their lunch money so that they would have something to spend on their girlfriends just to keep them. Aiden? All he needed was math answers.
Besides that, the day had just found so many other little ways to tax Aiden’s energy above average. Night time found him with heavy eyes and limbs. Lauren would be getting a short bedtime story.
Her soft footsteps creaked into existence right on schedule.
Aiden gazed at her. She was pretty. Even with those ghoulish eyes. He wished that there were baby pictures of her in the family album. He had his favorite pictures. With Dad at the run-down Burger Man in the town Dad was born in. The joint was practically one big showcase of fifties and sixties fiberglass sculptures. Like someone tried to turn their cartoon nightmares into three-dimensional beings. Cows especially — then pigs, farm animals… and naturally, one large anthropomorphic cheeseburger. Dad wore big glasses and a chestnut colored mustache, and the white rim of a diaper peeked over Aiden’s “big boy” pants.
Then there was the picture of Aiden on the Slip N’ Slide at a neighbor’s birthday party. It wasn’t even Aiden’s party and the photo made it look like he was the one kid having the time of his life.
There was the rather placid Spring photo of a four year old Aiden picking dandelions as big as sand dollars.
They were all missing something.
A little dark-headed girl with gray freckles on her nose. A friend, a shadow by his side. A little sister. Someone that would experience the snapshots and discover life with him.
She lifted herself into bed with Aiden and lay beside him, looking into his eyes with her icy black marbles.
“Hey,” he smiled at her and ran his fingers through her hair.
She started babbling.
Her mouth ran ninety miles an hour without a single breath. Strange words without the remotest semblance of English. Syllable after windless syllable.
He looked at her with confusion in his tired eyes. He tried telling her about his day but his words were swept under her torrent of speech. He pulled his pillow over his ears. Her voice was just as clear. After so much time, he got up and paced around his room. She followed. The little mouth prattled away footsteps behind him. He gazed out the window at the sky. The night was thick in the darkness of a new moon.
He lay back down. Not only feeling irritated, but strangely light-headed. He felt disconnected from his body and his thoughts displaced by her voice. A trickle of meaninglessness that slowly pushed his mind, his thoughts, his soul out of the grotto of his core and into the deeper recesses of cold narrow caverns beyond. He found himself having to consciously focus to keep from being dissolved out of his own physical frame.
Stop it, he wanted to say, but was afraid to. Why afraid? He didn’t know. The night wore on and he had to stay present to keep the torrent of words from sweeping his mind away.
Did he sleep last night or didn’t he? It could only be measured in minutes if he had. His mom troubled herself every morning for the last four years over the possibility of once again finding a wax skinned shell in her son’s bed. This morning she only found this frail exhausted thing with dark blue/green circles around his eyes. Which was fine by her. Nothing to warrant calling the nice men in the white coats.
“Aiden, you alright?” she asked without really waiting for him to answer. She hurried him down to the breakfast table, pushing him through the fog. He staggered so slowly down the sidewalk that his mother questioned if he would make it to school on time.
Lauren was silent that night. And the night after. But the feeling that part of him had been eroded away and replaced with a strange sort of Nothing persisted for days.
Sally Baker wore a look of concern as she stood in the silver morning fog. It was opaque and compounded by the low rainclouds overhead that withheld their downpour. Aiden hadn’t shown yet. Other students passed her, a few of them looking like Aiden until they fully emerged from the fog and became someone else.
Mr. Dole wasn’t going to give his students an easy way out of Pre-Algebra. If they wanted his smile as they moved into Summer vacation, they were going to EARN it. Earning his smile meant earning the smile of her parents. Without it… they would find a way to sour her Summer Vay-Cay. That’s just the way things went down with the Baker family. The longer Aiden didn’t show, the more Sally’s Summer hopes dimmed. If the love of her life didn’t come along soon, she’d be turning in one very bullet-riddled homework assignment.
Fewer and fewer students passed by, until she was alone in the fog. Tardiness on top of bad study habits? Hey, Satan. Here’s my ticket for first class on the Hades Express.
Waiting was no longer an option. She would have to keep moving.
The days of a short trek with Aiden to the grade school were over. Now she had to take the steep grade that was Codwell Ave. where, at the crest, one would normally have an impressive vista of a far end of the Downtown Area of Silverkey Crossing off to the right. With the fog, all that was visible was the stretch of vacant houses to the left, each of which were beyond redemption. Ancient fruit trees grew unkempt and great of girth from abandoned gardens. Wilder varieties, crooked and bristly, punched through crumbling roofs from the inside. So many blocks later, the Junior High School would arrive.
Sally walked this way with Aiden many times. Now without him, she realized how isolated this stretch really was.
She pulled the bottom of her tight pink tee around her jeans, trying to hide the skin most teen girls showed off.
She threw her eyes over her shoulders every ten seconds. Ironically oblivious to the large shape that materialized in front of her.
“Jesus Christ, Will!”
Sally came short of colliding with the rotund body of none other than William Dougherty. Pig-nosed, pug-faced, ginger-headed. The very young man that Aiden bludgeoned four years ago for stuffing leaves and snow in her sweats.
He hadn’t paid much attention to her since then. Sure, he’d look at her. But that was all.
“The school’s this way,” she barked and continued on her way at a fast clip.
“Sally,” he said.
“We’re gonna be late. So I don’t have time to talk.”
Her furtive glances back at Will revealed two very unfocused blue eyes. He was 15 and in the same grade as Sally and Aiden. Bad grades and no friends suggested Will was struggling with the grueling transition to adulthood. The way he was looking at her suggested he was struggling with a great deal more.
She had a witty cutdown ready for him if he didn’t leave her alone. But she wasn’t ready for the chance he’d wrap his great flabby arms around her and clamp her mouth with one paw. The explosive scream was sealed in tight. The other free hand began groping. He lurched himself off towards the row of vacant houses with her in tow.
He made it to the rotten back porch of a house of dark oak planks. Only a few flecks of the original white paint remained.
She was wearing one of those wide faux leather belts studded with false silver bling. He undid the buckle.
She bit him. The ensuing crunch suggested more than punctured skin. His cry was porcine and guttural.
His one good hand snatched at her long blonde locks. She squealed like a hare caught by the ears, and her distress made Will feel warm all over. All he had to do was reel her in by her long golden hair. He took it all in. The thrashing. The jeans riding down her pale waist as she struggled. The increasingly frantic squeals. This early in this neighborhood in this fog, nobody would see or hear.
Then Aiden emerged from the fog and kicked William between the shoulder blades. It caught him by surprise and he staggered, was more a distraction than a wound.
“Well hey, if it ain’t Twitchy McStutterbox!” he dropped Sally.
“Come on, Twitchy! You can like, punch me fifty times a second with your crazy twitch powers!”
What immediately followed didn’t completely register in Aiden’s memory. There were blurry snapshots of his fist connecting with William’s face. William’s jaw at a very strange angle to his simian upper row of teeth. William’s arms outstretched at a young tree as if for a hug? No. His head was bouncing off of it.
Then Aiden could see again. William lay limp and fetal at the base of the tree that caught him. Sally was petrified.
Her friend was just barely recognizable. His eyes were both hollow and smoldering and haloed by light bruises of green and blue.
“Hey,” he said.
Her voice was a whisper.
She walked beside him, but didn’t ask for any help with math.
“W-what just happened b-back there?”
She kept her eyes to the brick walkway the grass had been swallowing up for decades.
“D-do we need to tell someone about Will?”
Still no answer. Aiden had watched his own parents enough to understand that when the lady is quiet, don’t push.
The duration of the day was ordinary enough minus his sore knuckles. Lunch was bland. That square chunk of ceiling tile they call pizza and chocolate milk.
This paper due at the end of the day, that paper due first thing tomorrow. Blah blah blah.
Bell rings, kids shout in praise to the Lord over it, and the stampede ensues. Ordinary day.
Up until Aiden walked his route home and stopped as he looked over at where the morning scuffle had taken place.
William Dougherty’s bulk was still under the tree.