Assignment: Tell a story of a character with an odd habit. Such as obsessively crossing one’s own heart.
Caleb Barker was no longer a child, but he woke every morning with the same routine he had acquired as one. He would wake slowly, slapping the snooze button on his alarm a handful of times before rising himself. He would stumble his way into the bathroom, squint into the too bright light, and urinate. He would then stand in front of his toiletry mirror, undressed but for his underwear, and study his face with mild distaste and loathing. It had never been what he wanted it to be; his eyes chestnut, were alive and aware, but they were set above layers of fleshy cheeks. There was a scar across his forehead, diagonal, a daily reminder of his weaknesses. His thinning hair only made it more apparent.
He would study himself for a moment, reminded of everything he wasn’t, and then he would cross his heart. A habit secondary to breathing, his right hand would cross his chest diagonally one way and then the other. He would do this several times a day; upon waking, before bed, in times of stress, or just for a familiar comfort.
He would finish off his morning ritual, shower, brush teeth, and shave the fuzz off of his cheeks around his carefully trimmed beard, and then dress, all in a very precise manner. His breakfast was minimal; cereal or toast, depending on the day of the week. They would alternate, so as not to become a stale repetition in life. He would study over a crossword for twenty minutes or one cup of coffee, whichever came first,
Finally, with briefcase in hand and house keys in his pocket (checked repeatedly and methodically to ensure that they were, in fact, there), he would stand at the front door of his one bedroom apartment, and lean his forehead against the cool reinforced steel (he lived in a decent enough neighborhood, but his apartment complex equipped all their units with triple bolted steel doors). He would close his eyes and take three (always three, no more, no less) deep, even breaths. He would then once again cross his heart, exit his apartment, and lock the three bolts behind him.
The day he met Maddy Callaghan, his nose was in a book. The bright yellow bus was winding it’s way over hills and around forests for the first time of the new school year.. He was sitting alone, as he tended to do. Kids around him created the morning din of waking adolescence; loud yawns, greetings of friends after a long summer, slaps of high fives, the raucous roar of high schoolers proclaiming their dominance at the top of the food chain from the last few seats of the bus. Periodically a wad of paper would thump the back of his head, maybe land harmlessly in his lap, followed by the tittering of teenagers and mild insults under hushed breaths. Mostly based on appearance, he was used to “Fatty” and “Four eyes” but some days they would get creative and call him “Gayleb Fucker.”
He had hoped, deep down, that this year might be different. They would forget he existed, or find another target slightly shorter, slightly fatter, slightly more awkward than himself. He was disappointed that he was wrong, but not surprised. He ignored them now as he ignored them the year before (and the year before that), head down, eyes on a page, caught up with the Hardys’ in a mysterious caper or sitting with Arthur Pendragon and his knights about a round table. That was his escape.
“Are ye waiting for someone?” a voice asked. He payed no attention to it, as nobody asked him such questions, and it was not tinged with malice.. “Hey! Are ye daft?” the voice insisted, “Are ye saving this seat for someone?” He received a poke to the arm and glanced up, surprised. A girl stood before him, tall and lanky and with short, alarmingly red hair, and an abundance of freckles. He looked around, in front of him, behind him; his peers were lost in their own conversations or earbuds blaring loud chunks of music.
“Aye I’m speaking to ye.” she continued, noting his sudden confusion. “Are ye waiting for somebody?” she nodded to the empty space beside him. Her voice was lilting and musical, certainly not native to Midwest United States. He shook his head dumbly and crammed himself against the window, giving her more room than she actually needed. Lights and shadows passed as the bus shifted from from low gears to high, jerking them all subtly. She sat and eyed him, looked him over. He felt uncertain and naked, being observed so intently. She chewed her gum, her breath smelled of cinnamon. Finally she nodded and offered him her hand.
“I’m Madeline.” she said, again with that lilting, musical accent. She smiled a large, toothy smile that seemed to engulf the whole bottom half of her heart shaped face. “You can call me Maddy. I just moved in.”
Before the bus, he had bought his lunch at a corner deli and sacked it in an exact order. Can of soda on the bottom (to prevent crushing of all other items), Fuji apple, and tuna salad sandwich on top. He folded the top over three times in exact turns, running his finger over and flattening the crease in between each fold.
He hadn’t brought a lunch to work for the better part of the past two weeks.. What lunches he did bring tended to vanish from the break room refrigerator, as unknown conspirators would drink the soda, eat his sandwich, and nibble on his apple before replacing everything back into the sack exactly how they had found it. Come noon he would open the fridge and take his lunch, only to find it much lighter than when he had placed it in there a mere four hours before. This happened regularly, two to three times a week. Last Friday several people were let go, and he assumed it was safe to once again bring his lunch to work.
The bus chugged along through city streets, stopping periodically with a hiss of hydraulics as the doors opened and closed, people boarding and departing. He was aware of where he was; his office was exactly twenty-two stops along the route, give or take a few red lights. The back of his mind counted the hissing of the door, one, two, three, as he read a paperback quietly. He sat against the wall, lunch on his lap and briefcase protectively between his feet, faintly aware of the people coming and going. He had learned a long time ago to drown people out.
As the count in his head reached twenty, he stowed his paperback away into an inside coat pocket. Two men sat across from him. They wore ragged work boots and beige jumpsuits with twin company logos and white embroidered names on black patches. One nudged the other, whispered something conspiratorial (or so he thought) into the other man’s ear, and they both laughed. At stop number twenty-one he crossed his heart and took several meditative breaths before standing to exit the bus a few more blocks down the street.
Maddy sat by Caleb every morning for the first month of school. The first week he thought it a fluke, or a cruel joke, but she continued to join him day after day with that same smile. She would call him by his full name, Caleb Barker, and by the way she stressed syllables and rolled her r’s, he never imagined his name could sound so magical. They had a handful of classes together as well, and be it by alphabetical order or mere choice, she sat beside or behind him in several.
Her family, she had told him in bits and pieces the first week of school, was from Ireland. Her father (“Da” she would call him) was a scientist who studied stars. They had moved here, she whispered in confidence, to work on a top secret government program. She didn’t reveal such information immediately of course, but after several days she stated he was a trustworthy buck and made him promise not to tell. “Cross yer heart and hope to die, stick a needle in your eye.” she said to him, and he did so, diagonally one way, and then the other.
She was always interested in what he was reading and admired how he could read on a moving vehicle and not get sick. “Anybody can do it,” he would reply, “it just takes practice.” His habit of reading to and from school began to suffer as Maddy jabbed his ear off and drew him into his first real conversations with a peer his age.
She was new and dangerous, as far as thirteen year old females were concerned. Her wardrobe consisted of torn jeans and t-shirts with names of bands as foreign as her accent. He was raised on his parents’ music, which was okay but anything counter culture. Today Maddy wore a shirt with the barely legible title of The Jesus and Mary Chain and a faded picture of what was possibly once a Madonna. Her black leather boots, scuffed on the toes and consistently unlaced red strings, were propped up against the seat in front of them.
“This for you.” she handed him a cassette as she sat. It had no case, and written in blue pen on paper tape across the top was his name, Caleb Barker, in careful cursive.
“What is it?” he asked. It had been hiding in her hip pocket, and it was warm to the touch.
“That, Caleb Barker,” she said with a laugh and her smile, “is your new education. You’re a right smart boyo, but life isn’t all about books and tests.” She tweaked his ear, he blushed heavily. “Take it home and listen to it. If you like it, there’s more where that came from.” He studied it a moment more, turning it over in his hands, reading his name in her handwriting, again and again. He thanked her and stashed it protectively in his book bag side pocket. “I ain’t going to tell you what’s on it, that’s the fun of a good tape. You have to listen to it all. Needless to say though,” she added with a wrinkle of her nose, “lots of Violent Femmes. I love the Violent Femmes.
He had not heard of them, but the name dripped with forbidden and taboo knowledge. He wanted nothing more at that moment then for it to be late afternoon, hiding away in his room, completing homework, and listening to whatever secrets were recorded on that thin black tape.
A wad of paper thumped the back of his head. He hardly reacted. Maddy, though, snatched the wad of yesterday’s notes, turned around in her seat and tossed it hard back, “Aye ye gobshite!” she shouted, “go fuck with somebody you’re own size!”
He gaped at her, awed. He had heard the f-word before, in movies or uttered by his father as he tinkered with faucets and dishwashers or whatever else needed fixing about the house. But from the mouth of a young, petite female, it carried weight and venom.
And with that, Caleb Barker was in love.
Caleb’s job required him to read incoming news columns of varying sizes, check for spelling and grammar, and declare it fit to print. Lighthearted, happy news crossed his desk a few times a week; a soldier befriending his squadron’s dog, say, or local people doing heroic deeds. By and large, though, the world was full of misery and pain, of victims and abusers.
He had placed his sacked lunch in the back of the refrigerator and to the left, behind a large tupperware bowl of someone’s leftover lasagna. The walls of his cubicle obstructed his view of the break room, but he eyed the door watchfully on walks to and from the bathroom or copier. Twice he checked its safety as he was refilling his mug of coffee.
His neurosis eased and soon he found himself deeply engaged in his work. Diseases leveling entire African villages, Islamist militants beheading journalists and teachers, small bands of guerilla fighters raping and killing women and children. The world was indeed a wicked place.
“Caleb!” a voice boomed behind him, cheerful but with tinged with malice; He started, surprised, though this happened several times a week.. Caleb spun around his chair, knocking half a cup of coffee to the floor. “Ooh, Caleb, you’re all thumbs.” the voice chided, “ You’re going to have to clean that up, you know. Margaret is not in the office today.”
“I know, Mr. Parker,” Caleb stuttered, pushing his glasses back onto his face and fixing his hair nervously, “I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry, you surprised me.”
“It’s okay, Caleb. No blood, no foul, right? Just clean that up as soon as you can. Coffee stains.” Parker had brought with him a stack of files, manilla folder upon manilla folder stuffed with articles and columns. “George had to go home early today,” he continued and dropped the block of paper upon Caleb’s desk, “and this is what he needed to do. Real important stuff, right? So I’m going to need you to finish that off before you go home.”
“On top of what I’m already doing?” he asked. The stack of folders loomed ahead of him, a sudden obstacle between himself and the safety and comfort of home. He took deep breaths, he crossed his heart once, twice, a third time..
“That’s an odd tic you have there. Why do you do that?”
“You need me to do that, and my own work today?” dodged Caleb.
“Yes, Caleb, and I think you’re the man for the job.” He slapped Caleb on the back, hard. He winced and rocked forward. With his hands free, Parker rested an elbow on a cubicle wall and dug in his sports coat pocket. He pulled out an apple in shades of red and yellow, and bit into it luxuriously. He winked at Caleb and smiled, pointed at him and repeated “You’re the man!” through a mouthful of apple. He then strode away, bellowing good mornings and nicknames to employees as he went.
Caleb stared at the stack of folders and crossed his heart, diagonally one way, and then the other. He had work to do.
Caleb had never been comfortable in his own skin. He did not understand other people, their mannerisms or their demeanors. He found that a smile could either be genuine or malevolent, and he could not distinguish between the two. He avoided eye contact. He felt more comfortable with his books and hobbies, short lived but obsessive, than he did with his parents much of the time. Sometimes even his clothes irritated him to the point of crying.
In short, Caleb was considered by many to be strange and unusual, and thus damaging to one’s middle school social status. Which was fine with Caleb, as he wanted to avoid almost everybody anyways.
Somehow, he was okay with Maddy. That smile that stretched from ear to ear contained no malice. There was no subtlety to confuse her speech and movements. She was a firecracker, hot tempered and passionate, and Caleb understood about every emotion through her voice and hand gestures. Not immediately, but certainly near the end of fall, he found he could look her in her emerald green eyes without discomfort or feeling he had to, as his parents taught him to do and as he knew as one of the Necessary Steps of Meeting a New Person. It was organic. He was not pretending for anybody.
He devoured the first tape she made him, and so she made him another. They were not songs he felt his parents would disapprove of, though the occasional curse word was growled with the ire of teenage angst. Rather, he wished to cherish her gifts as certain dark things should be cherished, behind closed doors and in the shadows of his room. He would ask her, on the bus or in class, who sang what. He desired knowledge of this new world, and in return she gave him full tapes of Pearl Jam and The Cure and her beloved Violent Femmes.
In the depth of fall, trees were half bare and the ground was aflame with the oranges and reds of fallen leaves. Jack o’ Lanterns began to decorate the doorsteps of neighbors, and Maddy would tell him of the various beasts that haunted Irish countrysides. The wail of banshees foretold death and vampiric fairies kidnapped wee babes on moonless nights. It was all very horrific and wonderful. She noted his excitement, and gave him a present Halloween morning.
He enjoyed Halloween immensely, and as his peers grew out of their costumes and candy traditions, he stayed firmly rooted in the yearly routine. This Halloween his mother had helped him dress as Dracula; she had sown him a cape, black exterior with a lush, scarlet satin interior. She had paled his face with powder and painted a black widow’s peak on his forehead. His father gave him a black vest from his wardrobe, and Caleb bought a pair of glow in the dark vampire fangs and a bottle of fake blood with his allowance. He bared his fangs in the mirror, dripped faux blood on his lips, and practiced his best Bella Logosi.
Yes,he was a sight to behold.
He stepped onto the bus that morning and was greeted with a sudden, shocked silence. He began walking towards his customary seat. One step, two steps, three steps. At four, the bus erupted all at once. A boy in the back broke the silence, a high schooler, as he boomed, “It’s fat Dracula!” The rest of the bus followed suit and began laughing hysterically or mocking with “oohs” and “aahs” of ghosts. He sat and ducked down, down as low as he could. He could not duck low enough. Kids, younger and older, would peer over and around seats and snicker or rupture into more peals of laughter. He wanted to go home. He wanted to hide. He wanted to die.
Maddy stepped onto the bus five minutes later and found Caleb crouched down low in his seat. As she stepped on, the kids hushed but for a few snickers; they had learned not to do or say certain things in her presence, lest that passion and temper be turned on them. She beamed as she saw him and sang his name, his full name, excitedly. “Ye look right spooky, ye do!” she squealed and sat beside him. He said nothing. He stayed crouched and hidden. Tears had made trails in the powder of his face. She saw this, and she glowered. “What’s wrong, Caleb Barker? Di’ these fucking arseholes say something?”
He couldn’t say. He was ashamed to say.
She looked about them. Boys and girls coughed self consciously and did not make eye contact. Rage burned off her like a furnace. He felt it, they all felt it. She said nothing to them.
“Give me your blood.” she whispered crosley. He didn’t move, she became more agitated, “The shite on your lips, do ye have the bottle?” He nodded, pulled it from his bag, and handed it to her. He was afraid what she might do with that small bottle of colored corn syrup. He imagined the back few rows of the bus dripping with fake blood, a scene from a horror movie his parents would not allow him to watch but that he snuck peeks on the backs of VHS boxes at the video store.
She did not, however, turn rage and gore upon the onlookers. Instead, she wet two fingers with drops of blood and put them on her neck, an inch apart, leaving two little dots that resembled the marks of a vampire upon their victim. One dripped wetly. She wiped her fingers on her shirt (Evil Dead it read, and a girl was attempting unsuccessfully to pull herself from an early grave) and crouched down beside him.
“I want you to stand up with me, so all these fuckers can see us, and I want you to put your teeth on my neck, right here.” she instructed. She leaned her head to the side, exposing her pale freckled skin and the two red dots.
“You, you want me to what?” he stammered and blushed. The thought of him putting his mouth on any girl terrified him. He had seen it in movies, and his father would steal gratuitous kisses when he thought he wasn’t being watched. Caleb had thought about it, of course, as any teenage boy was wont to do, but it terrified him all the same.
“Bite. My. Neck.” she emphasized each word and stood, dragging him up with her. There they stood, seat 10a was their stage, the children their audience. There was a moment of silence before Maddy shouted melodramatically, “No, ye foul beast, I will not join you in your ranks of darkness! Ye cannae have my body or my soul!”
She then tugged him to her, tight and hard, grabbed a handful of hair on the back of his head and forced his mouth to her neck. She arched her back and screamed, continuing to hold him to her. Her skin tasted salty, the blood sweet like sugar. After several moments she released him and pushed him back with one arm, swooning with the other, forearm to her head like a silent film damsel in distress. He stood and stared, he could not move, he was horrified and aroused. Information flooded his brain and he did not know how to process it.
With the timing of a well trained actress she came out of her reverie and stood erect, stiff backed and zombie like. She held out her arms to Caleb, encircled them around his neck, and once more drew him close.
“Oh master,” she breathed. She smelled of cinnamon, always cinnamon. “I’m all yours now.” She kissed the drops of fake blood beneath his bottom lip delicately and lowered herself slowly to the seat, pulling him down with her. The audience applauded, wolf whistled and howled. Once seated and hidden from the audiences’ view, she gleamed her smile, wrinkled her nose, and said, “And all they get for Halloween is chocolate. You have your own vampire slave.”
She dug in her bag and pulled out a book, tattered and dog eared, the spine well creased. The cover had a young girl in a prom dress, and she did not look happy. Carrie, it was called. She handed it to him. “Happy Halloween, Caleb Barker.” she said and tweaked his ear. “It’s time to get you away from those fucking Hardys.”
The high schoolers were let off first; their middle school was separate and another few miles down the road. One boy, the boy who had antagonized the jeering with his shout of fat Dracula, gave Caleb a sly smile and a wink. “Nice.” he said and exited the bus. Caleb smiled. It was going to be a very good Halloween.
He decided to have a working lunch, as there was much to be done. He opened the refrigerator door and looked behind the tupperware he had so carefully hid his lunch behind. The bag was gone. Not craftily eaten and replaced, simply gone. He closed the refrigerator and sat. He took multiple breaths, feeling the air fill his lungs, and slowly let them out in counts of three. He crossed his heart. He crossed it again and cursed under his breath. He crossed it a third time and stood hard enough to knock back his chair. It clattered noisily to the tile floor. People stopped their tasks and stared through the break room windows at him. His fists clenched and unclenched, he felt his heart in his throat. He retreated to men’s bathroom and remained there until break was over, splashing his face with cold water, trying to breathe, and crossing himself more than he had ever done since he began the habit.
He returned to his cubicle with a bag of chips from the vending machine, dry faced and calm, and continued to work.
Winter swept in on the tail of the holiday whirlwind. He did not want Christmas break; two weeks without school meant two weeks without Maddy. He had grown accustomed to her, she was now part of his daily routine, and she gave him funny feelings in his stomach. He said nothing, though, and was delightfully surprised when she showed up on his front door the morning after Christmas. She was holding a long pink sled big enough for two and wrapped in layers of sweaters and snow pants and a pea coat adorned with pins of all types, from smiley faces to band names he had familiarized himself with. It had snowed, the first white Christmas in years, and it was snowing still. Flakes danced around her, settled in strands of red hair escaped from her cap. Her breath (cinnamon, always cinnamon) misted the frigid air.
“Dress warm, Caleb Barker,” she declared, “we’re going sledding.”
She sat in the kitchen as he dressed. His mother, surprised by a guest for her son, and one so female, barraged her with questions. She answered them all with no hesitation, about herself, her family and where she had lived (“All over,” she replied, “Da never is able to settle down for long.”), her school. They sipped hot chocolate as they talked. She asked about Caleb, if he liked school, if he had any other friends.
“Naw,” Maddy said, “just me, but that’s enough, yeah? Quality over quantity, that’s what my Da always says.”
His mother agreed.
They stomped through snow shin high, in and out of forests, up and down hills, searching for slopes relatively free of trees and rocks. They found a few and had settled for mostly hazard free hills. Those with obstacles were challenges to Maddy. They would sit at the top of the peak looking downward and she would strategize. “Lean a soft left at the rock there,” she would say into his ear as she sat behind him, pointing to a cleft jutting violently out of the hill. He was terribly aware of her long legs criss-crossed over his own. “And right after lean a hard right to miss that tree.” He would nod, and they would push off. The strategizing rarely worked and they would either make air off of a jagged rock acting as a ramp, or careen headlong into a large oak tree. Either way it was thrilling, and they would lay in the snow and laugh, and she would hug him and say his name in that musical voice of hers.
Hours later they trudged back to his house, drank hot chocolate, and watched cartoons underneath a blanket on the couch. He was not used to sitting that close to another human being, but he did not refuse His mother offered to drive Maddy home, but she politely declined and left with enough daylight for a safe journey. Once gone, his mother sat across from him in the kitchen and served chicken noodle soup for dinner. She grinned at him, and wouldn’t stop grinning. It made him uncomfortable.
“What?” he said, rather more defensively than he meant to.
“You sly dog, you,” his mother replied and winked, “How long have you kept her a secret?” He shrugged and stared at his soup. She interrogated him no more, but ruffled his hair. “She’s coming over again tomorrow?”
She did, and every day for the remainder of their vacation.
The hours passed and Caleb worked, hunched over his desk and absorbed in red ink and a terrible world. Mothers killed their children. African warlords slaughtered villages and stole Red Cross supplies. Wars raged, innocent people died.
This was, indeed, a wicked world.
He felt his scar as he worked, ran his finger up along his forehead and back down. It was raised and oddly smooth where it had healed. It was a different shade than the rest of his face. His complexion was darker, almost tan, and the scar was a white blight. He was ashamed of it, it reminded him of his weakness every day, and for years he hid it behind shocks of hair. His hairline, though, began receding a decade ago and he had to give up that battle.
He could hear Mr. Parker’s voice roaming from cubicle to cubicle. He would joke with this person or that, make suggestive comments to a few women, crack tasteless jokes and guffaw at the punchlines. He was a few cubicles away when Caleb caught the word “Barker.” He stilled his pen and tilted his head, focusing on Mr. Parker’s voice. He seemed to be trying to whisper, or at least speak in slightly more hushed tones, but sound traveled well in this large open office space. It was mostly indistinct vowels and consonants, breaks of stifled laughter, but he heard his name more than twice, certainly. He caught disembodied words, floating out to him in comic book speech bubbles. “Asshole.” “Fat fuck.” Subdued chortles. Then one sentence, crystal clear and jagged like a handful of broken glass, “He’ll be here late, but what the fuck do you think he has to go home to?”
He crossed his heart. He breathed. His eyes stung. He crossed his heart again and again. He even whispered her name, “Maddy, help me be strong. Maddy, help me be strong.” he chanted repeatedly. His body shook.
He once more heard Mr. Parker’s voice, telling whomever he was speaking to to wrap it up and go home early today. Footsteps faded, a door closed.
He calmed, gradually, and set back to work.
The stack he had been given had been shrinking, and he was down to five stuffed manilla folders. Several more hours, surely. Home by seven, maybe eight. It would be dark. It frightened him, rankled his nerves. Walking alone in the dark through this wicked world was a stressing thought, and he crossed himself once more.
He opened the next folder, and he stopped. He felt his face flush alarmingly. He couldn’t breathe. The fingers he had worked so hard to settle again began to twitch. They felt numb, his whole body felt numb.
A woman’s heart shaped face was smiling up at him. That smile swallowed her whole mouth. Shocks of red hair stuck this way and that, styled to look unstyled. It had been decades, but he knew that face, he had thought about it every day of his life. He loved that face with more ferocity than he hated himself and the world around him.
He didn’t cross himself, not this time, but he touched the picture delicately, as though it might tear or vanish under rough fingers. He touched it and he crossed down diagonally one way, and then the other.
Caleb was never told why the boys did what they did, but in the end, did it matter? This is a wicked world, and teenage boys are no exception. They did what they did, for whatever reason, and left their mark on him for the rest of his life.
Snow had melted and hints of Spring had begun to emerge. The sun began gradually setting later and later. The breeze had lost its frigid kiss. Every now and then he noticed a green bud fighting its way to sunlight. He welcomed it.
Maddy missed the bus that morning and did not come to school. His rational mind, muffled and lost underneath his fears and neurosis, insisted that she was sick, only sick, people get sick every day. Stronger and louder was the alarm of a breaking his routine, his anxiety that she was gone, gone forever, he did something wrong, and she was gone.
He was anxious and confused through the day. His foot tapped relentlessly in all of his classes. He could not focus on the numbers that usually gave him comfort (numbers were rational, people were not), he could not focus on the book she had given him, dogeared and creased as all the others had been (dark, tentacled, and ageless gods slept beneath the waters for eons, waiting to wake and swallow the world whole). The world was not right.
At lunch, small groups of his peers huddled together around him in the cafeteria. He sat alone. They talked in hushed tones and stifled laughs. He knew, in his heart and in his bones that they were talking about him, he was the reason Maddy was gone, he was to blame, and they would laugh. He buried his head in his arms and did not eat.
The day crawled. At last it was over and he sat on the bus, alone, crushed against the wall and window. They passed Maddy’s house; the lights were off, no cars were in the driveway, it appeared abandoned. He moaned woefully deep and his throat. “She’s gone,” he thought, “I did something wrong. She’s gone, and it’s my fault.”
Maddy’s absence did not go unnoticed by others. Three boys, brothers from around his block, sat behind him, nudging each other, grinning and snickering. Caleb had felt every titter and every stare throughout the day like thorns in his sides and heart. His small, rational voice had told him he was not the butt of their jokes, but the other voice, the beast, had squashed that meek voice out. He had heard every whisper, every snicker, but in his anguish he did not hear theirs.
They exited the bus a stop before him. The brothers cast him glares as they walked by, but he did not notice. The oldest of the trio snapped his head to the side, the younger two nodded. They exited the bus and broke into sharp runs in between some houses. Caleb was gazing desperately outside the window, looking for shocks of red, listening for sharp peals of her laughter. The bus turned a corner, than another, winding its way through the blocks of his neighborhood. He was so lost in his misery that he almost missed his stop.
He set off for home, three houses down the street. Three houses may as well been three miles. He wanted the safety and comfort of his room, he wanted to listen to his tapes and read his books, and maybe, just maybe, tomorrow morning she would walk onto the bus, all smiles and laughter, like she had never been gone to begin with. He did not hear them calling his name in sharp, jeering tones. Perhaps he did, but it had been so long since he had been called Gayleb Fucker that perhaps he had forgotten.
They made their presence known, though, with a sharp shove from behind. He was unprepared, his arms were at his side, he was unable to catch himself. He fell forward and his forehead hit the pavement with a sickening, hollow thud. The world wavered and dimmed, unfocused and distant. He was vaguely aware of pain in his head, felt something wet and warm in his eyes, heard voices and laughter, muffled as if he lay on the bottom of a pool. Sharp pains stabbed his ribs and his body was jostled this way and that. He curled into a ball and wailed loudly in guttural, animal tones. All he could do was howl and hurt.
Time seemed to move in slow motion.
As abruptly as their attack began, it ceased. He lay on the ground still, howling and helpless, the world muffled and bleary. There was a new voice, though, high and shrill and so full of rage and violence that it frightened him the most. There was a hollow crack and somebody’s wailing. He opened his eyes. He could not see, not clearly. His glasses were lost. Wet warmth was spilling into his eyes, sticky and smelling of like an old mason jar of pennies.
Sounds clarified, became distinct. The voice he heard, so rageful, was female. Most words he could not understand, she spoke so fast and so angrily. But he knew that voice, nonetheless.
He put his hand to his face and it came away red and sticky. Blood, in torrents and big fat drops, fell to the pavement and pooled only inches from his eyes. He looked up. Maddy stood before him, legs crouched and apart, holding a thick tree branch like Babe Ruth determined to hit a home run, cocked back and ready. Her teeth were bared, her eyes glowed green fire. She was no longer a teenage girl, she was a warrior, fierce and deadly. The middle brother lay beside her on his side, cradling a kneecap and crying. The youngest stood back several paces and stared at her in horror. The oldest, their leader, was on a knee and preparing for a blow to the face, eyes clenched shut, teeth grimaced. She swung, the branch moved in a perfect fluid arc, up over her head and down like an executioner’s axe. “You daft fucking cunt!” she cried as the stick fell and connected with the boy’s jaw. His entire face seemed to shift to the right. Thick, viscous blood and saliva erupted from his mouth. Shards of wood exploded from the long, rough branch as it snapped in half from impact. Something small and white floated, weightless, into the sky and landed directly in front of Caleb’s face. It appeared to be a tooth.
“I’ll farkin’ kill all o’ ya! Get the fuck away from him!” she shifted a foot, pivoted, so she stood between them and himself. She raised the stick threateningly Broken as it was, she was no less ferocious and feral. The boy stumbled away, cradling his face and trailing a long thin string of blood. The boy with the busted knee lay in a ball, prepared for his own pummeling. The youngest brother glanced at her, glanced at his defeated accomplishes, and broke off into a quick retreat.
The boy with a mass of gore where his mouth used to be was yelling something, but it was thick and wet and gurgled. He screamed it, still, again and again until it finally cleared his throat as well as it could. “I’m telling my dad!” he slurred and choked, and joined the other two.
“And I’ll beat his fucking ass, too!” she retorted, “Go!” She turned to him as they vanished between some houses. He flinched away from her, pushed himself back with his feet and hands, crawled away from her like a crab. Her face softened into concern. She dropped the stick at her feet and reached for him. He yelped and scuttled back once more. “Caleb, sweetheart, Caleb oh Caleb,” she whined piteously and touched his forehead with her fingers. Pain shot through him. Her fingers came away dripping. She did not care. She held him and kissed his forehead,, smearing red all over herself and him. “Oh Caleb darlin’. Those fucking bastards, I’ll fucking kill them. Oh Caleb, talk to me.” she cooed and stroked his cheek.
He said nothing in return, but he shifted and curled into her, hugging her. He cried into her side, wailed unashamedly. She held him until Caleb’s mother ran to them in alarm, hearing her boy’s screams and the bloody ruckus.
Somehow, Maddy managed not to curse in front of his mother.
He rubbed at the scar on his forehead furiously, making it red and angry. He touched her face again; older, yes, a bit more full, but unmistakingly her, lost in a stack of horrible news. It accompanied a brief column, blunt and to the point.
School Shooting Kills Four, Shooter Dead
CARTHAGE Mass. (Reuters) – A student fatally
shot three high schoolers and one teacher when he
opened fire in the library of his Massachusetts
state high school on Monday. The shooter then
turned the gun on himself.
Witnesses described the scene as horrifying,
claiming the teacher, a Miss Madeline Callaghan
was gunned down while hiding two students.
The victims have not yet been publicly identified.
Principal Brian Rogers expressed grief condole-
nces for the families of the slain students, but
stated pride for his staff’s calm and prepared
response. He was quoted on calling Miss Mad-
eline Callaghan “a hero.”
He heard a long, hollow groan and realized it was him. He read the article, and he read it again. His fingers shook. His eyes burned. He covered his heart with his hand.
He needed to leave. He needed to leave now. He stood and walked to Mr. Parker’s office, holding a small clipping of paper, no bigger than four inches long. He felt like it weighed a ton, massive enough to have its own gravity. He walked into Mr. Parker’s office, unannounced.
His wound healed the best it could with sixteen stitches, leaving a long diagonal scar across his forehead. The doctor said it would most likely be permanent, but it was a fine exchange for a busted brain, he added with a good natured laugh. The boy wasn’t so lucky; a fractured jaw and three missing teeth. Maddy was grounded for a week.
“Formalities,” she explained to him on the bus. “My Da’s right proud I did it, and saved your sorry arse.” she said with a lopsided grin while touching his stitches delicately. “He needs to keep up appearances, so grounded it is.” she sighed. “I get ice cream.” she added matter-of-factly.
His mother and father were thankful for her. In their eyes, she could have gotten away with murder, and almost did. Once ungrounded, his parents invited her and her father over for dinner. His mother made a pie. His mother never made pies.
Early Spring became full blossom as the weeks rolled by. Caleb devoured the books, all dogeared and bent, that Maddy gave him. Bradbury and Asimov. C.S. Lewis. Stephen King. He digested them as he did her music, learned it inside and out. He was obsessive and hungry for more.
He had his fill of her knowledge. They were each other’s shadow as the weather got warmer. Maddy’s attack became the stuff of legends in their eighth grade class, and boys of all ages gave her wide berth as she walked through the hallways. “Daft cunt.” was now a new slogan on the lips of children learning new and dangerous words.
She came to him one night, late into the evening. She tapped on his window and he answered. “Come outside.” she whispered urgently. Caleb, usually one deathly afraid of getting into trouble, didn’t think of the rules as he threw on his robe and ran into his back yard. She was sitting in the grass, amongst a small grove of dogwoods bloomed pink and white. Pettles would break off and fall around her, framing her face and getting into her red, tangled hair. He sat with her, and they were quiet. With no streetlights in their rural neighborhood, the sky was a vast array of stars and the thin, white cloud of the Milky Way.
“My Da says most of the stars we look at might not even be there anymore,” she said with a soft, wondrous tone, “They’re so far away that their light, the fastest thing in the whole world, takes years and years, eons, to reach us. That star you see,” she peered and pointed at the brightest star, due North. He followed her finger. “That one right there, that’s the light from millions of years ago. It could be gone, dead, and we wouldn’t know it for another million years. ‘Big is too small a word’ he says. My Da’s a smart man. He likes you. I like you.
“I’ve lived in so many different places, Caleb Barker. My Da and I, we always move. I’ve met so many people, most good, but many bad. This is a wicked world, Caleb Barker. People treat each other horribly. I donae like the way people treat you. You deserve better. Yer better than the whole lot o’ them.”
She put her hand on his. He flinched, but did not pull away. She squeezed his fingers. “I’ve met a lot of people, but you, Caleb Barker, are my favorite. I’ll miss the holy hell out of you.” she finished.
It took a moment for those words to wash over him, but as they did he felt as if he were drowning. “You’re leaving?” he choked. He felt his face blush, his stomach harden, his blood icen. “You can’t go, Maddy.” He could think of no reasons for her to stay other than she just couldn’t. He was astonishingly self-aware; he knew that “because you’re part of my world now” would have been selfish and immature. He refrained, and simply said “You can’t go.” once more.
“My Da is getting called away,” she explained. “It happens a lot. Top secret government stuff, you know.” They were quiet for several minutes. She gripped his fingers, he felt her pulse. She put her head on his shoulder and sighed.
“Promise me something, Caleb Barker.” she said. He nodded and choked back snot He did not mind her contact, one more of a long list of first comforts he had felt with her. “Promise me you’ll stand up for yourself. Promise me you’ll get angry and you’ll talk back. You’ll talk big.” she kissed his fingers, her shoulders heaved, “Cross yer heart and hope to die, stick a need in yer eye.”
As sad as he was at that moment, he thought wishing for death or serious self bodily harm were out of the question. He could cross his heart, though. He could do that every day.
With no warning, she took his chin and turned his face to hers. She kissed his bottom lip tenderly once and then twice. It was his first real kiss. He did not pull back or find it as horrible as he thought he would from the movies he watched. She not only smelled of cinnamon, but tasted of it, too, hot and sweet. It hung on his lips for a minute, he didn’t want it to leave.
She turned back to the sky and replaced her head on his shoulder. They sat that way until his mother noticed his absence and called him into the house. Reluctantly he trudged inside after one last long hug from her. He watched her out his patio door window. She turned and blew him one last kiss and then faded into the darkness and out of his life forever.
He crossed his heart, and he cried in the safety and comfort of his bedroom.
Mr. Parker was lounging comfortably in his swivel ergonomically sound and very expensive chair when Caleb barged in. He feet were on his desk. He held a magazine and waited out the last quarter hour of the day. He shot upright, surprised, and then angry, all in a moment.
“Barker!” he chastised, slamming his feet on the ground before he could tip over, “Good Christ Almighty you fat fuck! What the hell do you think you’re doing?” He was livid and red, and fuming. Caleb paid him no mind.
“Mr. Parker,” he pleaded, “I’m sorry, I have to go home, I’ve, I’ve had an emergency, and I have to go.” he stammered. Parker stood and glared.
“No.” was all he said. No explanation. Simply “No.” Molten and venomous.
“Please, sir, I.” he trailed off. He eyes flitted around the room anxiously and landed on the trashcan beside the desk. His eyes wandered away, but stopped, blinked, and turned back. A soda can, his soda can, lay empty atop a pile of crumpled paper and something else, something darker than copy paper, something beige and paper and with three neatly folded creases running along the top.
“You daft fucking cunt.” Maddy’s voice echoed in his head.
“You daft fucking cunt.” traveled perilously close to his tongue, he could taste it on his lips, like hot cinnamon waiting to boil over. He crossed his heart once, and only once.
“You daft fucking cunt.” escaped his lips as he settled his chestnut eyes squarely on Mr. Parker. His voice was not his own, it echoed an Irish accent, the accent in his head. Just as he had promised Maddy, he began to talk back, and he began to talk big.