The Cuckoo Clock put William Dougherty in the hospital.
The gossip tindered among the students as soon as paramedics identified the boy and filed a report with police.
Principal Masterson leaned on his desk and studied the meek, dark eyes of the youth that claimed responsibility for Will’s misfortune. An overweight officer stood beside him with folded arms.
“And then what happened?”
“I r-ran up to th-th-them. W-Will was trying to get his hands… his hands in h-her p-pants. Trying t-to get her to b-b-be quiet.”
“Will made f-fun of me.”
Aiden shook his head. “I hit him.”
“How many times?”
“Once I th-think.”
“Twice maybe? I don’t remember. I was really m-mad.”
The officer stepped forward, a man with a mustache so thick you couldn’t tell if he was frowning or not.
“Mr. Dougherty’s jaw wasn’t just dislocated. It was fractured in three places around the chin. And he sustained multiple concussions. You don’t carry brass knuckles on you or anything?”
“I don’t unders-s-s-tand.”
“He’s saying you shattered his jaw and quite possibly cracked his skull. He still hasn’t fully regained consciousness,” came the principal’s effeminate voice.
Aiden’s hands shook as he fidgeted with a fingernail.
“I just wanted t-to p-p-protect S-Sally.”
The principal stood up and straightened his sport coat. “That’s good and well, Mr. Keller, but Mr. Dougherty hasn’t woken up yet, so we don’t know what his side of the story is, and you and Miss Baker are the only witnesses so far. His doctor says he isn’t going to be at school for a while. And neither are you. As of this moment you’re suspended for a week. If Mr. Dougherty’s account makes you look worse, you’ll be suspended even longer. Officer Nielsen here will see to getting your things and e****t you off the premises.”
At Aiden’s locker, Kurt Nielsen looked over the slender young man that loaded up his backpack with shivering hands. He looked at the few students in the hall. They all threw furtive glances at Aiden. In his very brief time handling the incident, Kurt had already heard hushed voices saying that ‘The Cuckoo Clock’ picked up William Dougherty and broke him like an egg. His time in the insane asylum made him super strong. Or something like that. Dougherty’s name came up more than once at the police station. This kid? Kurt never heard of him. On any average day, he never thought he would. His arms stayed crossed, but he tilted his head.
“Got anything else to say before I take you home, Mr. Keller?”
“You don’t seem like an awful guy to me.”
Aiden wasn’t sure what to do with that.
“I j-just wanted S-Sally to b-b-be okay.”
Kurt looked around.
“You got a house key?”
“Alright. Let’s go. We’ll be calling your folks as soon as we talk with Mr. Dougherty’s folks.”
Aiden swallowed hard.
“Is he gonna b-be okay?”
“I’m really not at liberty to tell you. Let’s just say he’ll live long enough to think twice about putting his hands in girls’ pants.”
“Y-you mean you b-believe me?”
“Let’s go, son.”
The ride home felt longer than the usual walk home. There was no music in the squad car and voices of other officers chirped in and out that Aiden couldn’t understand a word of. Officer Nielsen said nothing.
Alan leaned back in his drawing chair, swiveled towards his son, who was hunched forward in a creaky dining chair and couldn’t look up from the floor. There were two pieces of correspondence on the drawing desk. One from the school and one from the police.
Mary was in the doorway with her arms folded and her shoulders nearly up to her ears.
Alan pulled on a tumbler of whiskey with large ice cubes.
“Shattered jaw and a concussion, huh?”
“Aiden?” Mary barked when he didn’t answer immediately.
Alan looked at Mary. “Proud of him!”
Both sets of eyes shot him with an expression of shock. Just for different reasons.
“Kellers know how to defend their women. He should have broken the kid’s wrists, too.”
Aiden looked back down at the floor before his mom could catch his grin.
Mary launched her first volley of verbal missiles. Alan tapped his pen against his skull as a man who had braced himself for the whole thing, unable to control the smile that creased the corners of his stubble-framed mouth.
Giddy and laughing, Aiden told Lauren about the whole thing that night. She greeted the information with the same blank glare as always. Laid her head on her big brother’s chest when he was done talking. He wondered if she was proud of him. You know. In her own way.
William Dougherty did indeed wake up. Gracelessly. He moaned about wanting a Cherry Pepsi. His eyes took their time in bringing the room into focus.
“Will?” said a familiar voice.
“Issat… you? Sis?”
The blurred double image of copper eyes framed by rusty red hair loomed over him. She blinked and went away.
“Molly? Cub. Cubback.”
Her voice was far away, talking to another voice.
“Hey, I’m here, Will. I had to tell the nurse you’re awake. You’ve been here a long time, and they told me to get them as soon as you wake up.”
William’s memory began to kick in. His craftiness followed.
Molly watched her older brother, a pale heap of freckled and bandaged pudding, twist his eyebrows into his best “poor little me” look.
“I was attacked on the way to school. That stupid kid that escaped from the insane asylum hit me with a ball bat. He needs to go back in.”
“Cuckoo Clock? No, you were trying to undress his girlfriend on the way to school and he caught you and broke you with his bare hands.”
Will’s chin wagged at the hard stone edges of Molly’s words and her facial expression. It was the truth. Uncouched. Undiluted. But it still felt like his own sister was insulting him.
Someone much taller than Molly came up behind her. An officer with an unusually thick mustache. His dark eyes weren’t friendly.
“We’ll be talking to you soon, Mr. Dougherty. Rest up. You’ll need to be able to think clearly for your testimony about Mr. Keller and Miss Baker.”
‘The look in that kid’s eyes. If his mouth is anything like his face, he won’t be able to lie very well,‘ Kurt thought.
He sat in the same chair Aiden did two weeks prior. Under the same eyes of Principal Masterson and Officer Nielsen. He was far less composed than Aiden despite not having a history of psychotic break.
Will’s eyes sat deep in his head and were open to the point of bulging, making him he look like a frightened farm animal.
Officer Nielsen stood beside him and was the first to speak.
“William Dougherty, you don’t know me, but I’ve known you off and on. I won’t lie to you. You’ve been on the edges of the law’s radar for a while. The other officers have had a turn at talking to your parents and it looks like it’s my turn. I’m going to need your help in convincing me that you didn’t get interrupted sexually assaulting a girl on her way to school. I don’t want to have join the ranks of officers that deliver bad news to Mr. and Mrs. Dougherty. Alright?”
Kurt walked over beside the principal’s desk and leaned on it with one hand.
“So, then. The truth. As you know it.”
“Okay. So, I’m walking to school. It was really foggy and I couldn’t see much. I got kind of lost and started looking for people to help me.”
“Where were you?”
“The empty houses along Codwell.”
“So you knew where you were? You weren’t actually lost?”
His eyes danced.
“Well, if I could find someone I knew I’d feel better.”
“And you found Miss Baker first, right?”
“Right. I was like, hey, can I walk with you guys to school? And…”
“So you saw Mr. Keller as well?”
“Well, no, but I just guessed he’d be around. I mean, they’re always with each other and stuff. So, she just tells me okay, that’s find, then Cuckoo Clock takes his baseball bat and begins hitting me in the back of the head and stuff. So I…”
“Mr. Keller was carrying a baseball bat the whole time?”
“Yeah. Oh yeah. He’s freaking nuts.”
“And you felt comfortable asking them if you could walk to school with them? When you weren’t really lost? When you knew where you were?”
Those eyes danced some more. They would have pulled back into his fat skull like the stalks of a snail if they could.
“Well, he hit me in the back of the head where they bandaged me up really good, okay? And Sally just stood there laughing at me, and…”
“Yes, you did get hit in the back of the head. Doctors found slivers of bark from a birch tree.”
“I’m not arguing that you got hit in the back of the head. But in all the wounds you sustained to the head, minus your jaw, there were scuffs with traces of birch bark. There’s no paint or other evidence of a ball bat. It looks like you were repeatedly thrown against the same tree.”
“And there’s only one Birch tree on Codwell Avenue. Always has been since that neighborhood has been empty. And it has multiple dried bloodstains on it.”
“Well, Cuckoo Clock’s bat is made of Birch wood.”
“With the bark still on it?”
Will’s mouth was open but unable to speak. He didn’t see that one coming.
“I talked the Chief into the extra funds to have those bloodstains tested. You were laid up in the hospital just long enough that the results will be back either tomorrow or the day after. Can we expect that those stains will test as yours?”
“No. No way,” Will shook his head and his hands.
“Any idea whose blood it is?”
“Well, I think Cuckoo Clock is mean to her. Really. I do. He was probably like, beating her against that tree before I came along to save her.”
Kurt nodded, “You think he’s the one that gave her those bruises around her waist? She didn’t want us to look at it, but at the belt level, someone marked her up.”
Will lit up. Could it be? Was there a chance he could Bee-Ess his way out of this one? Enthused, he nodded.
“Oh yeah. I mean, Cuckoo Clock always has that bat on him to keep her in line and remind her who’s boss and stuff, you know? So he’ll hit her everywhere but the head so he doesn’t kill her, but so, like, he gets his point across.”
Kurt’s mustache shifted with the broad smile that took shape under it.
“Tell me, Mr. Dougherty. Which brand of baseball bat leaves bruises that look very much like handprints?”
He looked at Will’s flabby paws. “Large handprints?”
His hope incinerated as soon as it was aroused, the linchpin in his machinery of deceit yanked out, Will’s testimony was torn one hole after another the thinner it stretched. Details changed. Orders of events switched places.
It all. Simply. Fell. Apart.
Two days later, the results of the blood samples from the lonely Birch Tree came in. It was Will’s.
He was called into the Principal’s office once again with Masterson and Nielsen.
Masterson drew his breath and blinked uncomfortably.
“Mr. Dougherty, I regret to inform you now that not only are you are suspended up until the end of the school year, you will be held back in the seventh grade and tutored by a school-sponsored private instructor until Mr. Keller and Miss Baker graduate to High School where they won’t have to interact with you on premises on a daily basis.”
“What?” Will said blankly.
“The man is saying is you’ll be a 7th grader in a classroom of one until Keller and Baker are no longer students here. And that’s if you decide to do everything right from here on.”
Will blinked on a level of wincing.
“And I’ll be checking in on you,” Kurt smiled.
The next day, Aiden sat in the same chair before the same men.
“Mr. Keller,” Principal Masterson began, “I do not believe in violence, especially among students, as an avenue of solving problems. But under the circumstances, your actions in behalf of Miss Baker are considered justified. Marginally. You won’t suffer any long term penalties. Finish your suspension and continue with the program until Summer Vacation commences.”
Aiden looked to Officer Nielsen.
Somehow he knew that great mustache curtained a smile.
Sally walked to school besides Aiden.
“Now some people are saying you took a huge bite out of him.”
“L-l-l-let’s t-talk about something else.”
She stood in front of him and grabbed his hands, smiling.
“How come? My boyfriend came to my rescue and put a bully in the hospital and now you’re like really popular for it. People respect you now.”
“It’s n-not respect.”
“Close enough,” she kissed him on the lip. Slowly. She hadn’t really done that before. He flushed crimson and trembled a little more than usual.
She unslung her backpack and dug into it.
“Hey, about problem thirty two in Math Class…”
Life went on a few pounds lighter for Aiden. He still stuttered and his hands still shook, but he didn’t have to deal with a walking cupcake of solid Crisco topped with lard and muscle trying to claw its way into his girlfriend’s pants.
Everyone got their school yearbook for three dollars apiece. When had picture day been? Two months ago? Sure enough, Will was in there. Wearing a broad-brimmed camo baseball cap that looked like he stole it from a farmer that came up with his own conspiracy theories.
‘So I’m a psychopath, huh?‘ Aiden mused. He thought about the small handful of horror movies he’d been exposed to. Stuff his dad watched after two tumblers of Bourbon and after Mom was already in bed (and they thought Aiden was, too). He took an ink pen and scribbled out Will’s eyes in his copy of the yearbook. He looked at it, chuckled to himself and put it away.
18 days. 18 days since Will was suspended and was no longer in Aiden’s conscious mind. At the end of the school day, Aiden was putting his books away in his locker, when he saw the corner of a piece of notebook paper sticking out of his locker. This wasn’t unusual. Sally left him notes all the time.
But the note wasn’t written in Sally’s handwriting and it certainly didn’t say anything Sally would say:
YOU’RE GOING TO DIE.