Stranger Inside Excerpt

[1]

Jimmy didn’t know how the fight started.

He’d been standing in front of his locker and he remembered watching that asshole Frank Bradley pass by. In Jimmy’s mind there was an abrupt cut from that, directly to the sound of his skull hitting the locker. He didn’t have time to shake the painful ringing out of his ears before he felt Frank’s fist slamming into his gut.

Frank must be having a bad day.

Jimmy felt his back slam into the locker behind him. Copper breath blew from his puffed cheeks as Frank punched his side, above the kidney. Frank’s other hand pressed against Jimmy’s face, holding him back and obstructing his vision. Frank’s hand smelled of sweat and grease.

Jimmy heard a crowd around them, though he could only catch glimpses of the semicircle of students. None of the faces were familiar, though Jimmy wondered exactly who he was looking for. He’d only been here two months—

Another jab in the region of his kidney brought the thought to an abrupt close.

He brought his arms in close to fend off Frank’s fist, which kept pounding. Frank didn’t seem to notice, or care. Frank was throwing wild punches, with little attention to where he connected.

Fuck.Jimmy thought. The bastard isn’t going to let up this time.

In desperation, Jimmy brought his foot down, heel first, as hard as he could along the inside of Frank’s leg. The hand over his face dropped away as Frank stumbled slightly. Frank’s fist still connected for a fourth— or was it fifth?— time, but the momentum was gone. It bounced off of Jimmy’s shoulder.

Jimmy didn’t stop to reason out what he was doing; he just launched himself at Frank. Frank wasn’t any older than Jimmy, but he was a hell of a lot bigger. Fifty pounds heavier and about four inches taller. None of it was fat.

Fortunately for Jimmy, Frank was off-balance. All his weight was on the near leg, the one that Jimmy hadn’t stomped. So, when Jimmy’s shoulder hit Frank’s solar plexus, the bigger kid toppled backwards into the ring of students surrounding them. Out of his peripheral vision, Jimmy saw a couple of kids fall backwards on their asses.

Jimmy knew that he was going to be seriously stomped when Frank got his breath back. He had to stop this fight now.

He balled up his fist and did the only thing he could to keep Frank down. He punched the bastard as hard as he could, in the groin.

Frank howled.

Jimmy scrambled backwards, tried to stand up, and fell backwards into the lockers, sliding down to land on his ass.

His face felt wet. He reached up to his cheek, afraid that he might have been crying in front of everyone. He was somewhat surprised when his hand came away covered with blood.

He stared at the slick redness on his hand in a bewildered fascination. Frank was doubled over and throwing up, and the circle of spectators was backing away from both of them.

I’m bleeding,Jimmy thought, how the hell did that happen?

“The new kid. . .” Jimmy heard someone whisper. They meant him. “. . .he did time in prison. Bit someone’s ear off.”

Fucking moron, that was Mike Tyson.Besides, juvenile hall shouldn’t count if no one ever pressed any charges.

“Did you see him go after Frank like that?” Someone else, a girl, out of Jimmy’s immediate line of sight.

“. . .out of control. . .”

Jimmy shook his head and kept staring at his bloody hand. Frank had jumped him. That’s how it happened.

Frank’s vomit gave off an acid reek.

Frank had grabbed him and shoved him into the locker. Frank had ground his hand into Jimmy’s face. Frank had started it.

“. . .nut case. . .”

Why am I bleeding?

“What the Hellis going on here?” Jimmy heard the voice of a teacher over the sounds of the milling crowd. Coach Miller by the sound of it. The guy was five feet of sour gristle, and everyone called him “Miller Lite” behind his back. Everyone except the football team, and the wrestling team. . .

Frank, of course, was on both.

Jimmy, of course, was not.

Miller pushed and cursed his way through the surrounding students, opening a way for himself and a squad of hall monitors.

When he made his way to the center of the circle he stopped cursing. His normally swarthy complexion had turned the color of bread dough. His lips pressed so hard together that Jimmy thought it looked as if his jaw might crack.

Jimmy imagined that he found it upsetting, seeing Frank, their first-string quarterback, clutching himself and laying in a pool of vomit.

“What. Happened. Here?” Coach Miller’s voice was as sharp and as hard as a guillotine blade.

“H-he—” Jimmy began.

“No.” Miller snapped, chopping the unspoken words out of the air. He jabbed a finger at one of the crowd. The blonde freshman Miller singled out winced as if impaled. “You.”

“S-Sir?”

“What. Happened.”

“It was a fight.”

“Thank you Mr. Genius.” Miller snarled. He whipped around at another unfortunate witness. “You.” He said to a black senior who had been trying to look cool and uninvolved.

“It’s like he said something and he just wigged out.”

“Who ‘wigged out?’” Miller said, the voice a few degrees colder.

Jimmy closed his eyes because he didn’t want to see who the black kid pointed to.

If Frank started this, why don’t I remember?

“Get up,” said Coach Miller. “Both of you get up now.”

Jimmy opened his eyes. He could feel his heart racing now, something he hadn’t even noticed during the fight. The blood dripping from his head felt cold when it dripped on his arms. He felt dizzy and short of breath but somehow he made it to his feet.

“No, you don’t,” Coach Miller yelled over the crowd at someone Jimmy couldn’t see. There were now a half-dozen hall monitors and one of the High School’s security guards. From somewhere came the crackle of dialogue on a walkie-talkie.

The security guard, unlike the hall monitors, wore a uniform. Jimmy didn’t know the guy’s name. The students called him “Spam,” and Jimmy didn’t know if it was for the guy’s greasy complexion, or if it was a dig at him not being quite a pork product. Probably the latter, since the more smart-assed of the student body took to singing the theme from COPSwhen he passed in the halls.

Even now, with his chest tightening from fear and his head spinning with the confusion of what had just happened, the theme ran through Jimmy’s head. . .

Bad boys, bad boys, whacha going do. . .

In spite of his disorientation, or perhaps because of it, the sight of the ruddy-faced security guard poured into a uniform a size too small almost made Jimmy burst out laughing.

The amusement wasn’t mutual.

“Everyone in this room,” Spam called out. “I want every student in the sound of my voice, in this classroom now!”

Jimmy took a step forward, but Spam held up a sweaty hand with little sausage fingers. He shook his head no— and Jimmy stifled a giggle because the guy’s neck tried to remain stationary when his head moved. Jimmy fell back against the locker, relieved.

His classmates filed past him, into the empty classroom Spam had indicated. Every single one of them seemed to stop a moment to stare at Jimmy.

Spam took charge. “You two,” he indicated two of the half-dozen hall monitors and pointed up and down the hall with the antenna of his walkie talkie. “Keep people out of here. We got blood and puke all over the place and I don’t want anyone through here before it’s cleaned up.” He pointed to a third hall monitor. “Go in that class and get everyone’s ID. If someone don’t got it, get their name and have the office call their folks. I want a confirmed list of every witness to this mess.” He looked into Jimmy’s eyes. “And someone get the goddamn nurse down here.”

The gloves made it sink in.

The hall monitors had put on latex gloves before they would touch him. They held his upper arms, half to steady him, half to restrain him. The custodians who came to clean the mess wore long green rubber aprons and heavy rubber gloves that reached to their elbows. Even the nurse, when she washed Jimmy’s scalp, wore a mask and latex gloves.

It was as if the hallway had suddenly become a plague zone.

Jimmy knew he was in deep shit. He was just now realizing how deep. Once the disorientation and confusion ebbed, what was left was a fatalistic view of his future. A quadriplegic on the railroad tracks.

Anyone else, it would be less stark. If it wasn’t Jimmy. If it wasn’t Frank. . .

Jimmy had no illusions. The faculty here didn’t love him, and the administration loved him even less. A foster kid, bad enough. A foster kid from the city, with a history of “problems.” That was the kiss of death as far as any benefit of the doubt went.

Never mind if the “problems” weren’t Jimmy’s doing. If someone got in his face, he got in their face right back. If you took shit from anyoneit was painting a target on your face saying “kick this.”

Jimmy had been in dozens of fights.

This was the first one here.

Jimmy had thought things had changed. He had told everyone that things had changed. They hadn’t.

The Vice Principal, a cadaverous man with eyes the color of dirty half-melted snow and the unfortunate name of Cummings, came down to the north wing about twenty minutes after the incident. Jimmy saw him talk to Coach Miller and Spam. Cummings nodded and looked grave— which didn’t say much because the man only had one expression.

Vice Principal Cummings stayed well outside the plague zone and waited while the nurse cleaned Jimmy off. When the blood was mostly gone, Spam put a latex covered hand on Jimmy’s shoulder and maneuvered him toward the Vice Principal.

“What happened here, son?” Cummings asked. His voice was less obviously stressed than either Spam’s or Coach Miller’s. That seemed to have more to do with a lack of any emotion than any potential sympathy.

How the hell do I answer that? I don’t remember what happened.

“Frank said something. The next thing I know he was shoving my face in a locker.”

Cummings nodded and looked grave. “Is that what happened?”

“Yes.” It took every ounce of control Jimmy had to keep the uncertainty out of his voice.

Again the eternal grave nod. “Things would go better if you tell me the whole story.”

Jimmy spread his hands. He tried to say something, but the words got all tangled up in his throat and all that came out was a choking stutter.

Cummings’ expression didn’t change when he said, “I should advise you that this school has a zero tolerance policy. The police have been called. The officers will take you both home and take your statements in the presence of your pare— guardians.”

Cummings was such a cold SOB that for a few moments Jimmy thought he made the slip on purpose. But when he saw him walk away and talk to Frank he decided that Cummings was the kind of guy who couldn’t take pleasure in anything, even rubbing Jimmy’s nose in his family history.

#

Jimmy’s current family consisted of a couple in their fifties, the Carswells. They lived in a neighborhood that wasn’t quite upper class. As foster parents, they were better than most, but to Jimmy it seemed that they had taken him on to patch a hole in their lives that was long past patching.

The Carswells lived in a split-level that had been built in the mid-sixties, and their house was filled with furnishings out of the mid-seventies. Above a gas fireplace, on a false brick wall in a room otherwise covered in aging paneling, there were pictures of dozens— and to Jimmy it sometimes seemed like hundreds— of kids. There were eight-by-ten glossies in dull silver frames, yellowing Polaroids held up by scotch tape, graduation pictures in their original cardboard frames. None of them were the Carswell’s own children. They didn’t have any.

Ma and Pa Carswell were kind enough, but their words often felt so smooth and well worn that Jimmy couldn’t sense any sincerity behind them. Their hopes for him, their desire to see him do well in school, even their concern about his nightmares, all had the warmth and depth of a semi-conscious reflex.

He wondered how many kids ever got driven home to chez Carswell in the back of a squad car.

His uniformed escort was named Chuck, and kept trying to engage him in conversation. “That was a nasty knock you took,” “I saw the other guy, he was twice your size,” “You know, I understand the crap they can dish out in high school. . .”

Jimmy kept his responses just the polite side of ignoring the guy completely. He knew better than to believe that the cop was his friend. It was a cop trick, trying to gain your trust so they can stick it to you. Jimmy had gotten burned before that way—

When they pulled around the circle in front of the Carswell’s house, Jimmy hadn’t spoken more than five words to the guy.

He wondered what Frank Bradley was going through at this moment. Was his dad threatening, or saying “attaboy?” Was Mrs. Bradley hysterical over her boy being brought home by police, or did she refuse to believe that such a thing could involve her little angel? Jimmy had never met Frank’s mother, nor did he ever have the pleasure of knowing his own, but somehow he could imagine perfectly the words coming from her lips, “No, officer, there must be some mistake.”

This was the first time he had ever been in any trouble on the Carswell’s watch, but Jimmy knew that he wasn’t going to see that kind of reaction from his current disposable parents.

The school had called the Carswells ahead of time, so both Mr. and Mrs. were waiting by the front door as the officer let Jimmy out of the rear of the patrol car. He wondered if Mr. Carswell appreciated getting out of work early.

Then he wondered what it was Mr. Carswell did for a living.

Mr. Carswell was shaking his head, as if having some deep-seated suspicion confirmed. Mrs. Carswell walked up to him and looked into his eyes, as if searching for something he’d left at school. “Are you all right?”

What a stupid question.

“I’m OK.”

“What happened?” The question was directed at the cop, not him. At least she wasn’t wearing Latex gloves.

“Fight at school, madam. Him and another kid got pretty busted up. With your permission, I need to take a statement from him.” The cop nodded toward Jimmy.

Mrs. Carswell looked into his eyes again, and not finding what she was looking for, looked back at the cop. “Of course.”

Jimmy found himself willing the Carswells to show some anger. He wanted them to be mad. No, he wanted them to be furious. He wanted them to threaten him, to scream at the cop. He wanted red faces and burst blood vessels. He wanted swearing and stomping. Anything besides this bizarre detachment, as if he was just a jug of milk that went bad in the fridge.

The Carswells led the cop, and the cop led him, into the living room where they all sat down. His guardians sat, impassive and watching, as the cop deconstructed his story.

“You said Frank Bradley was walking past you and you exchanged words.”

“Uh huh.”

“What words were those?”

“I don’t know, I don’t remember.” Jimmy stuttered and felt his throat closing up. His palms were slick on his jeans, and when he looked down at his thighs he almost expected to be bleeding again.

Just sweat.

“The next thing you know he was pushing you into a locker.”

Jimmy nodded, still looking at his jeans. There were still spots of blood on them.

“Just before that, what did you say to him?”

“I don’t know.” The words hurt his throat.

“Why did he slam you into the locker?”

“I don’t know.”

“Have you had any problems with Frank Bradley before this?”

“I told you what happened!”Jimmy pounded his fists into his thighs in frustration. The silence his protest left in the living room made him realize, slowly, how loud he had spoken. He looked up and finally saw an emotion in Mrs. Carswell’s face. . .

Fear.

#

Jimmy ran from the darkness with the slow deliberation that only happens in dreams. He ran naked through the halls of Euclid Heights High School, in one part of his mind knowing that this was a nightmare, in another part convinced that the danger was real. His feet slipped on the linoleum floors, sliding on a slick of his own blood.

He bled from wounds that peppered his body, his flesh torn by something invisible that was trying to eat its way inside of him, the Thing that lived in the ink-black shadow that followed him.

He couldn’t turn around to face it, because it always stayed behind him, approaching from a direction Jimmy couldn’t point to. He couldn’t see the Thing, but he could feel it. It was a rasping on the back of his neck, a sick twisting inside his inner ear, a liquid whisper, the feeling of something reaching for him and not quite grasping hold.

The Thing wanted Jimmy. Wanted him with a dark lust that transcended Jimmy’s wounded flesh. What the thing wanted was worse than pain, worse than rape, worse than death, worse than anything that Jimmy had ever had the power to imagine.

Running, he slipped in his blood again, and fell into a locker. His face smashed into the metal with more force than Frank could ever manage. He could feel the bones of his skull give way as the Thing grabbed for him again.

He could almost feel its grasp inside his brain.

#

Jimmy sat bolt upright, the sheets clinging to his naked chest and he sucked in breath after breath. His upper body trembled as a deep chill set his muscles on auto-pilot. For several long minutes Jimmy had to will the muscles in his arms, jaw, and shoulder to stop trembling.

He could still feel the fear, and he was angry at himself for it. I am not a wuss.He told himself over and over. I am not scared of no fucking bogeyman. I’m seventeen years old. People have waved guns at me without making me piss on myself.

Still, his heart raced, breath came fast and heavy, and his shoulders kept trembling under slick palms.

After several minutes of muttering to himself and rocking back and forth he calmed down enough to realize the Thing’s final gift to him.

“Oh fuck me,”Jimmy spoke slowly as he realized that he remembered how the fight with Frank Bradley had gone.

Frank’s having a bad day, yeah. Needs to take the new kid down a peg to feel better about himself. Jimmy barely notices him, at first.

It’s the laughing that gets his attention. God knows why, but he turns away from his locker, backpack half-full in his hand. “What’s so funny?” Jimmy asks.

Frank elbows his fellow jock in the ribs. “It’s a joke, pipsqueak, none of your fucking business.”

Jimmy steps forward. “Must be pretty funny.”

“You want to hear it?” Frank says. “Ok. Define mass confusion.”

Jimmy doesn’t say anything.

Frank’s jock friend edges away from him after looking at Jimmy’s expression.

Frank goes on, oblivious. “It’s called Father’s Day at Jimmy’s house.”

Students surround them, talking away, unaware until Jimmy speaks that anything is wrong. But what Jimmy says leaves the halls silent except for Frank’s dumbfounded question, “What did you say?”

“I said,” Jimmy speaks, hefting his backpack, “Take that back you dickless, pea-brained, steroid-sniffing sorry excuse for a left testicle.”

“You want me to fuck you up?”

“You know, Frank, it’s probably best if you keep fucking the rest of the football team— when you’re not giving them nickel blow jobs.”

Frank might have laughed it off if they’d been alone. He can’t do that here. Somewhere, back in the circle of students that already is forming around them, someone sniggers.

“I don’t need to take that from no pansy-ass special-ed kid.”

“No,” Jimmy says, “I bet you like your asses big and manly.”

“You little shit—” Frank preps to take a swing at Jimmy. Jimmy pre-empts it. He swings the backpack, half-full of textbooks, and clobbers him in the side of the head with it.

“Shit,” Jimmy whispered to himself. It washim. He had lost control and laid into Frank first. No wonder the witnesses said he just went nuts.

He had.

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