With the last bits of shredded wrapping paper stuffed into a black plastic trash bag, I turned my attention to the ornaments on the Christmas tree. I wanted it all down, every light and every silver thread of tinsel. Tara told me to leave the tree alone. She knew what the holiday meant to us, but maybe she wanted us to pretend we could forget about it. I thought, to hell with her, and to hell with my dad for not standing his ground. Staring her in the eye, I dropped the glass ball I took from the tree. It popped on the ground into tinkling silver shards.
Tara shook her head at me and clucked her tongue. She gave Dad that stupid exasperated expression she put on any time she had to interact with me.
“Richard, clean it up and be more careful. We will take the tree down next week,” he told me. He poured another half-cup of coffee, then filled the other half with whiskey.
Tara looked ready to have a fit. I saw it creep over her thin shoulders, up her skinny neck, but then to her credit, she bit her lips and held it back. She didn’t want a fight on Christmas. Hell, she just wanted a special day as a family. She wanted that Christmas promise of smiles, thank-you hugs, sledding, and then cocoas until dinner is ready. Dad was her first marriage and it was her first Christmas with a family of her own – second-hand as it was. Whatever Christmas meant to her, to Dad and me, it was a eulogy we had to suffer every year for a month. That’s why Dad drank until the tree and wreaths and lights and holly all blurred together, and kept on until they faded completely as he passed out.
Four years ago, I used to love Christmas. I’d nest in the wrapping paper before Dad had a chance to throw it away. When I gave Mom her thank-you-hugs she smelled like peppermint cocoa. She served breakfast on the big, round coffee table in the family room, so we didn’t have to leave our presents. With everyone still in their pajamas, we ate waffles soaked to the plate in butter and warm syrup and had tall glasses of pulpy orange juice to wash it down. After we dumped our dishes in the sink, we’d head to the living room, grab a blanket, then find a comfortable place on the sofa or floor to curl up and watch a holiday movie while our food digested. I’d fall asleep twenty minutes in, warm, full, and content.
When I woke up, all the wrapping paper was gone and my presents would be waiting for me, stacked up on my bed. Jackson, my little brother, and I would play with our new toys until Mom hollered at us to make ourselves presentable for guests. Family was coming for dinner. When all the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents arrived, the house would swell with laughter and excitement. Jackson and I would compare our presents with our cousins to see who had won that year. Then we would run around the house, sometimes playing games, but mostly I think we were trying to burn off the delirium and joy.
The air of the house would grow thick with the smell of food. Jackson and I would sit with the cousins, squirming at the kids’ table. Our plates would fill up with turkey and mashed potatoes all covered in gravy. Even vegetables somehow tasted good on Christmas. Then there was pie and eggnog, crammed on top of our fit-to-burst stomachs. The pile of dirty dishes everyone took turns washing never took as long as I thought it would. Everyone hugged their goodbyes. The younger cousins were carried out asleep, like rag-dolls in their parents’ arms. Dad would carry Jackson to his bed. Mom would kiss me good night. I would take one last proud look over my presents before crawling underneath my covers. The post-Christmas blues would set in as I drifted to sleep, but I’d still be smiling.
All that was gone now. All that family was on my Mom’s side. Dad didn’t invite them over anymore and never took them up on their invitations. With Mom and Jackson gone, everything felt uneven and the remnants of our family collapsed in on itself. We had buried Christmas at their funeral. December became just a cold month spent eating take-out and watching action movies. Then Tara came along and dug it back up, but it was a lifeless, zombie of a Christmas now.
His two-hour Christmas vacation over, Dad was back to work on his laptop. Tara began sucking down mimosas, trying to drown the regret of joining our broken family. Things were back to normal. It was just Wednesday again.
I swept up the broken ornament. Some of the glass got under the tree. Bending low to get at it, I noticed a red ribbon that wound itself around a gold wrapped box. It was about the same size as clothing box, but heavier than clothes. There was no tag saying who it was from and who it was for.
“There’s one more present under the tree,” I called out.
Dad grunted. He’d already given all the attention he could spare for one day. Tara leaned back in her chair to look through the kitchen doorway. She gave me a lazy smile, waving her hand in the air to say she didn’t care, and then went back to pouring champagne into her orange juice.
“Fine. I guess it’s mine,” I said to myself.
I put the present on my lap and tore the paper away from a clear, plastic box. Inside the box were nine balls, each of them was a different opaque color and about the size of a baseball. I thought they were more Christmas ornaments for Tara at first, but they were too heavy to be ornaments. I opened the box and took out the red, gooey ball. It felt sticky and squishy, like a ball of firm Jell-O, or more like the sticky, hand-shaped slapper things I used to get as a kid for two quarters out of toy machines. Fifteen was too old for toys, so I figured they were from Tara. She was clueless on everything teenager. They could’ve been some sort of game, but there were no instructions. I held the red goo-ball in my hand. An overwhelming urge to throw it against the wall came over me. It stuck with a very satisfying splat. I took out the purple goo-ball and threw it next to the red one on the wall. They both stayed stuck.
“Whatever you’re doing in there knock it off, or take it up to your room,” Dad bellowed.
“And don’t forget to take out that garbage,” Tara said.
I stood smiling off into nothing for few seconds after I pulled the goo-balls off the wall. When I tried to think of why I had started to smile, I couldn’t. It was like I had a good idea and then forgot it completely.
In my room, I dumped my presents on my bed. There was this building anticipation in my gut. There was all this energy in me. I licked my lips and took out the red ball again. I squeezed it in my hand, relishing the way it bulged between my fingers. I flung the ball against the wall with another satisfying splat and it stuck there quivering. I yanked out the other goo-balls out of the molded tray. First, I chucked Yellow and Blue against the wall, followed by Orange and Green, and then Teal and Purple, Amber, and finally Chartreuse. They stuck to the wall, wiggling a tad, but holding firm. I pulled them off one by one, and one by one, I threw them back against the wall. I kept at it until Tara came up to scream at me. She’d been calling me down to dinner. Eight hours had passed like a daydream. My shoulders ached and my arms shook with fatigue. My cheeks pinched with soreness. Apparently, I had been smiling the whole time.
Dad and Tara went to bed, and I was on my way to brush my teeth and do the same, but ended up out in the garage with the goo-balls. Hours passed. My tired eyes stung and deep yawns shook my whole body. Still, I didn’t want to stop. I only wanted to lose myself further in the peaceful repetition of throwing and pulling the goo-balls.
On one throw, the orange had stuck to the wall in a more oblong shape. Then the purple flattened against the wall in a rounded square. A thrill ran through me. Chartreuse stuck in a triangle. Amber, motionless in an octagon. Teal was a parallelogram. I went through every shape I could remember from geometry. When I couldn’t think of any more, Green hit the wall and spread into a smiley face. That gave me a cold rush of reality. I had somehow been controlling the goo-balls, deciding what shape they’d be when they hit the wall.
I threw Yellow on top of Teal, to see if it would stay there and, of course, it did. Then I threw Chartreuse followed by Red on top, and they stayed put too. I threw the rest of the balls and got them all to stick in a row straight off the wall. It was like having a dream where you realize you can fly. At first, you feel a little excited, but then it seems like the most natural thing in the world.
“Richard!” Tara shouted at the doorway with her hands pressed against her hips. “What the hell, man?”
The goo-balls fell onto the concrete floor.
“Wh-What?” I croaked, feeling disoriented like I had woken from a deep sleep.
“It’s 2 o’clock in the morning. Stop whatever the hell this is and go to bed.”
“I was, uh… trying out my presents,” I told her, picking up the balls and dropping them back into the tray.
“What are those things? Did your father get them for you?” Tara asked as she poked the teal goo-ball. “Are they toys?”
I shrugged, “Yeah, I guess. There wasn’t a tag or label or nothing.”
Tara’s eyebrows raised and she clucked her tongue. “Aren’t you a bit too old for toys?”
“Isn’t my dad too old for you?” I muttered.
“What did you say?” Tara said, grabbing my arm.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You know what?” She couldn’t finish. The fight went out of her and she dropped my arm. “Just go to bed.”
Back in my room, I flopped onto my bed and had the best night’s sleep in my life. The next morning I woke up with thick layers of sleep crusted in my eyes. My arms were heavy and warm. Something had changed in me; I could feel it. Something was better.
There was a week left of winter vacation, a week of being stuck in that depressing house. I spent the rainy days in my room pressing the goo-balls against the wall so they oozed between my splayed fingers, and then pulled them off, matching their wet sucking sound with my mouth. I had been at it almost nonstop for two days. When the rain let up, I couldn’t get outside fast enough.
The fields behind my house where I used to ride my bike along muddy trails were now converted into a tract housing development. Christmas had turned the place into a ghost town. Nothing was finished, but there were plenty of walls up, long stretches of flakeboard nailed to wood frames. I spent the afternoon walking between houses, throwing the goo-balls against either side and pulling them free on the way back. Out of curiosity, I stopped and stretched Red out as wide as my arms would go and tied it around a wood stud. Holding one end, I walked backward into the open field, about ten yards. It held taut the whole time, but it never pulled back. Somehow, I knew it would stretch out forever if I wanted it to.
A black R/C truck with green lightning bolt decals zipped around the corner of a house. The pitch of its electric motor rising to a shrill whine as it sped up. A boy in a blue beanie followed behind, a remote control in his hands. He looked up and me, and followed the red line that stretched all the way back to the house frame. I let go and it whipped back into a ball, stuck to the side of the beam.
“Coooool,” the boy said, staring at it with an open-mouthed smile.
He dropped the controller to the R/C in the bed of the toy truck and ran towards Red with outstretched hands. My heart pounded and cold sweat dripped from my armpits. I ran, out-of-my-mind desperate to reach it before the boy. My head throbbed, and my hands clenched into stone-tight fists, ready to hit him as he reached for Red.
“DON’T TOUCH IT,” I shouted.
The kid jumped back, staring at me wide-eyed and scared. I put myself between the kid and Red, turning my back towards him as I pulled the ball off the beam. Holding it to my chest with both hands, I hunched over and caught my breath in deep stuttering gasps.
“Jeeeez,” the boy said behind me. “I just wanted to look at it. You don’t need spaz out.”
Like a mother protecting its young, I clutched Red close to me, panting, waiting for the threat to pass. The whine of the R/C’s little electric motor started back up and faded away into the distance. I watched the boy jog away from the development, shooting me scared looks over his shoulder. When he was gone, I crept into one of the unfinished houses. I calmed myself by bouncing the goo-balls against the floor. They bounced instead of sticking because that’s what I wanted. It was only natural that they would do anything I wanted. We were starting to understand each other. I got them all bouncing in a circle, off the walls, floor, and ceiling. I stepped back and sat down watching them bounce around and around. I flung my hands out, like throwing confetti, and laughed as they went wild, bouncing off every surface in a blur of zigzagging of colors.
New Year’s came. I spent it alone in my room. I threw the teal goo-ball against the wall and it spread into the shape of nine, then an amber eight, and on down to a Chartreuse zero. Happy New Year. The goo-balls tumbled from the wall to the floor as I watched a broadcast of other people watching fireworks, and then got ready for bed.
My teeth were straighter. I noticed after spitting toothpaste out of my mouth. It was undeniable. There had always been that one front tooth that angled and overlapped the other. It wasn’t anymore. They were all white and even. I stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror: I noticed I was taller too, or my posture was straighter, no… it was like I was altogether better. My unwashed hair was still long and greasy, but it was fuller now, not limp or stringy. The overbite and hooked nose were still there, but less pronounced. My shirt used to fit loose, but now it pulled at my armpits and squeezed my arms. I slipped it off over my head and looked at my bare torso. The muscles there, too, had risen under my once flabby layers and took definition. I smiled at myself in the mirror. For the first time ever, I liked what I saw.
Walking back into my room, I stepped on Yellow. It squished beneath my shoe, spilling out on the sides. When I picked my foot back up, it sprung back into a ball. I stepped back down on Yellow until it covered the bottom of my shoe and did the same with Purple. Pushing one foot across the wood floor, I leaned into the motion and slid forward. Then I pushed with my other foot and slid forward, slick and smooth. The best I had ever done on skates, roller or ice, was standing on them long enough to crash into a wall. It wasn’t like that on the goo-balls, I didn’t feel the fear of losing my footing. I felt steady, in control, and like I needed more space to move.
I put on my coat and stuffed Chartreuse and Blue into the pockets. I slid out into the hall. The blue glow of television spilled out underneath the door of Dad and Tara’s room. I moved past their bedroom quiet as a whisper. Out in the backyard, I slid over the brick patio onto the grass, hardly feeling a bump. The pebbles on the gravel path didn’t even stir as I slid to the gate. Fireworks and excited calls of ‘Happy New Year’ came from the next block, but my street was quiet and dark. No one was watching. The gate swung open and I glided out onto the street.
Summers Lane stretched long and straight in either direction. I pushed myself, pumping my legs, to see how fast I could go — would dare to go. Houses blurred by. Normally, it took me around fifteen minutes to walk to the elementary school that stood at the end of Summers Lane, but I doubt more than a few minutes of sliding had passed before its brick walls came rushing up. I must have been going at least 30 mph. The problem was, I didn’t know how to slow down, let alone stop. I was going to leave an awful stain on the side of the school if I didn’t figure it out quick. The best I could do was to turn and hope I wouldn’t go rolling across the pavement. Gritting my teeth, I leaned to the left and prepared for the fall. I didn’t fall. Instead, I made a 90-degree turn, a perfect right angle, without even feeling the inertia. Letting out a breathless laugh at the impossibility of it all, I made another quick turn down the next street. I wove between cars parked on the side of the street. On someone’s lawn, I did a figure eight between their mailbox and tree but was gone before the motion detector light flicked on.
Back on my street, I sped past my front door and headed to the housing development. I darted between and through the incomplete frames and leaped out into the fields behind them. Across the grass and dirt roads, I pushed harder, willing myself faster under the cold light of the half moon. The wind roared in my ears and made my eyes water. The winter night air bit at my face and ears. I told myself I could go faster, that I could be invincible. The goo-balls would help me do whatever I wanted.
My house was far behind me. Hell, the whole town was miles away. Everything felt far away, even that looming sadness that had been hanging on me like a wet towel. I slid to a gradual halt on the rise of a hill and stopped at the top. A dark forest stretched in front of me, the moonlit farmland I came through stretched out behind. My hand slipped into my coat pocket and wrapped around Blue, squeezing it. Soon, I thought, without knowing what soon meant. Something was happening, and building, growing or coming. Was it me? Were the goo-balls making me into something new, stronger and better? My inner voice shouted so loud I jumped — YES.
When Christmas break was over, I didn’t dread going back to school. My skin had cleared up. It was now smooth and had a healthy color. I was bigger now. Not only taller but also built with muscle. Dad said nothing of my transformation. I honestly couldn’t say if he had turned away from his laptop long enough to look me in the eye in the four years since Mom and Jackson died. Tara did notice. The straps on my backpack were tight around the shoulders. She gave me a look over when I stopped to adjust them before heading out to catch the bus.
“You must’ve hit a growth spurt,” she said.
“Guess so,” I offered with a shrug.
“Maybe this year…” Tara took a moment to gather her strength. “Maybe you can try making some friends?”
Poor Tara. Would she ever stop trying to have a normal family?
“Probably not,” I responded.
“Why?” she asked. The desperation in her voice made it high and whiny. “Why are you so against having friends?”
“I’m a junior now. It’s too late. Everybody decided I was a weirdo the first day I came to school, and I was — am. Nobody is going to change their opinions about me this late in the game.”
Tara nodded as if this made perfect sense. I don’t think she agreed with me, but she didn’t want to argue. “Then you have no reason not to focus on your grades. There’s still enough time to raise your GPA, and then you can get into a good school.”
I rubbed my thumb over the blue, yellow, and teal bracelets around my wrist. “Maybe,” I said, straightening the backpack on my shoulders as I went out the door.
Classes crawled by. Most teachers let the first day be an easy transition back into school after the break, showing quick films, or having light discussions. Most teachers except for Mr. Kakkar. The hard-ass dug deep right into chapter 5 for Algebra 2 and ran us through impossible problems with his quick, flat voice. I think in his head, the lesson was a refresher, but the class either scratched down notes as fast as they could or just leaned back in their chairs with uncomprehending faces. Normally, I would’ve been in the latter group, but everything he said was sticking. The expressions formed in my mind as he lectured. Some things he said would trip me up, and the perfect equations in my mind would get tangled. But I soon realized it wasn’t me. Mr. Kakkar was decent at math, but he was a terrible teacher. A lot of his solutions were so convoluted and imprecise, it was a wonder anyone passed his class.
“Richard,” Mr. Kakkar called to me. “I can see I’m boring you. So I can only assume you know the material. Do you care to come up and show us how to simplify the statement, expressing the answer using positive exponents?”
Mr. Kakkar crossed his arms waiting for my usual routine of apologizing and pretending to pay attention. He cocked his head to the side like a confused dog when I wrote the solution on the blackboard, and then as an afterthought wrote down my work. Mr. Kakkar thanked me, trying to blink away his shocked expression.
As the week went by the same problem came up in all my classes: I already knew everything. I finished homework in class before the teacher finished the lesson. If there was a time I didn’t fully understand a subject I’d rub my bracelets, and the answers came. The following weeks, when test scores came back perfect, more than one teacher accused me of cheating. With more confidence than I’ve ever had in my life, I asked them to prove it. They shrank back from my gaze and sent me on my way.
Before Christmas break, socializing had been impossible for me. My brain stopped working when people started conversations with me, or it went too fast, overanalyzing everything they said. But then it was like I knew what everyone wanted to hear. Suddenly I knew when to throw a joking insult to the excitable meathead or when to dole out the compliments to vain airheads. At all the right times, all the right words flowed from my mouth like cream, and everyone licked it up. The assholes that pushed me aside in the halls were stepping out of my way. The dudes who used to sneer at me like a puddle of piss gave me head nods. The girls who had cringed if I was too near were flirting with me. People who had been around me since grade school thought I was a new student. For years, these kids had thrown sharpened pencils at the back of my neck, put gum in my hair, and spit on my lunch. The fact they didn’t recognize me burned like acid in the back of my throat. I wanted to give them some of that acid. There were so many things running through my head, succinct little sentences to embarrass and tear them down in front of their friends. But my inner voice said, NO. So I swallowed back the mean words that came so easy. Making a joke of it was better. We all laughed together.
Jasper, Cory, and Terry were the few holdouts that didn’t take to my new charm. Hating me had been their passion since 7th grade. It bonded them as friends over the years.
After lunch on Friday, they came around as I was leaning against Naheed’s locker. Naheed and I were talking about meeting up over the weekend. I had successfully talked her into going on a date with me. Since grade school, my crush on her had jumped around in my stomach like a scared rabbit. I was always too shy before, but I wasn’t anymore, not with the goo-balls wrapped around my wrist like bracelets. Two weeks worth of light flirting was all it took to get her interested in hanging out with me. But along came Jasper and his cronies to try and ruin it.
“Oh great, it’s rodent mating season,” Terry said.
Jasper leaned against the lockers close behind Naheed. Too close. “Why are you slumming with this rat, Naheed? You’re better than that.”
“You’re too hot to be talking to vermin,” Terry grinned, running his eyes up and down her. “You could do so much better. You could do me.”
My fingernails dug into the palms of my balled fists, tightening at my sides. Anger welled up inside me and I was ready to fight, but my inner voice told me to WAIT.
“We could exterminate him for you,” Cory shoved me against the lockers.
“Knock it off!” Naheed yelled, slapping at Cory.
“Ooooh,” Cory threw up his hands in surrender. “Sorry, Princess Jasmine. We didn’t mean to offend.”
Terry laughed, “Are rats, like, sacred as the cows to you Indians?”
The thin little barrier that kept all my rage down in my stomach tore away. The anger burned up my throat and pushed through my clenched jaw. I thought I was going to say something, but all that came out was a low growl. My hand shot up and found Terry’s neck. His tracheae pulsed between my thumb and fingers as he swallowed. He stared me straight in the eye, never losing his smug smile.
“What are you gonna do rodent?” He hissed, sending spittle in my face as he hit the T.
My inner voice again told me to stop. The voice was so loud I dropped my hand. Jasper was on me then. He took my head and bashed it into the locker twice. He then sunk his fist into my stomach. I doubled over holding my stomach. Terry shoved me over with his foot.
“Knock it off! Leave him alone!” Naheed yelled, batting at them with her fists.
Jasper laughed and pushed her off.
“Don’t worry. We’re done with your boyfriend,” Cory said giving me one more little kick to the side, adding, “For now.”
Jasper looked around at the crowd we had drawn. A teacher wouldn’t be far behind. He stretched his mouth back into a smug smile. Patting Terry’s shoulder, he said, “C’mon dude, I gotta wash the rat germs off my hands.”
Maybe my climb into their social graces went unnoticed by my schoolmates, but there was no doubt they had seen me fall. I was sure that little display would remind them that I was an outcast. I thumbed the orange band on my wrist, thought about pulling the goo-ball over my head down to my toes and letting it swallow me.
“You okay?” Naheed asked, slipping her shaking hands beneath my arm and helping me to my feet. “I can’t believe those psychos. You want me to grab a teacher? You might need to go the nurse. We have to get a teacher. Everyone saw. We need to get them expelled.” The altercation had freaked her out more than it had hurt me.
Then we were suddenly hugging.
“I’m fine. I don’t need to hide behind a teacher.”
“I’m not saying…”
“I know. It’s just… they already embarrassed me. If I snitch, it just shows everybody that I’m weak.”
“No, it doesn’t. It stops the psychos from doing something worse to you – or someone else.”
I stood up. There were a lot of people glancing over their shoulders, whispering to their friends. But, they weren’t sneering or smiling. They actually seemed worried. I couldn’t believe it. No one was laughing at me, and I wasn’t glad for it. It hurt more than if they had. It enraged me that they weren’t pointing and snickering. Where was this concern before, when every day was a living hell for me? So now that I was one of them they cared. Before, they would’ve all took turns kicking me after Cory was done.
“You don’t have to prove anything. Not to them or me,” Naheed said, wiping the blood at the side of my mouth with her sleeve.
“I — I’ve just been taking crap from those guys for so long. I just want to put them in their place.”
Naheed pulled her hair behind her ear. ”You know when you lash out like that you’re no better than them. It would have pissed me off if you hit them back. I’m so proud you didn’t. You came out of your shell, which is so great, but I hope you didn’t do it just to become like them.”
It was a kissing moment. After we laid all that vulnerability out on the ground like filthy clothes, we were too shy to look each other in the eye, so we puckered up. There were some whoops as Naheed grabbed my head and really went for it. I hoped I didn’t look as terrified as I felt. A teacher had to split us up and send us to class. We were a steady thing for the rest of year and all through the summer. We hardly came up for air.
At the beginning of my senior year, everything had come together. Naheed and I were all-over-each-other in love. I had friends and went to parties. My grades were flawless and even the teachers were warming to me. Naheed was pressuring me to apply to the university where she was going, and it was looking like I could actually get in. Life was looking up and I think I was happy for all of a month. By October none of it was real to me. The social life I had wanted for so long had come to bore the shit out of me. All my new friends just felt like stepping-stones. Even the excitement of my relationship with Naheed had begun to fizzle. I mean, I still loved being with her and all, but I couldn’t shake the feeling there was something even better than her waiting just ahead. The perfect path I was on, I knew there was a sudden turn coming. I didn’t know where it led, but I knew I would leave everything behind for something greater.
The first week of November, Frank Wies’ parents left for Vegas. In A.P. English, Frank told me they went every year and every year he had a party. This one, he promised, would be like a Roman orgy, but with better drugs. He gave me the address to his mini-mansion up in the hills. He told me it was far enough away that the police had not once come to break it up.
Naheed dragged me to the party. I didn’t care about going, but she insisted. Nothing interested me very much anymore, except the goo-balls. They had a purpose. I had a purpose with them, but I hadn’t been able to figure out what and it was making me antsy. If not for Naheed, I would have sat in my room brooding over what that purpose was every night. At the party, I got a little out of my head. Frank pulled me into a drinking game. I was either losing or winning but too drunk to understand which. My vision got blurry and everyone looked the same. My head was spinning and my mouth flushed with drool. I excused myself and ran to a bedroom bathroom, leaving everyone laughing behind me.
When the tacos I had for lunch came out, my stomach had finally emptied all it contents. I fell back away from the toilet, still sick, but so much better. I stumbled to my feet, ready to grab Naheed and beg her to take me home. When I opened the door, Jasper, Terry, and Cory looked up from the bedside table where they were snorting blow.
They shot up to their feet, at first scared, and then angry, but then smiles eventually spread across their faces like jackals.
“Oh, shit,” Terry laughed, “Was that you in there, Rat-turd?”
“He almost filled the fucking toilet.” Cory was behind me. I hadn’t even seen him move.
Jasper stuffed the cocaine bag into his pocket. He paced around the room checking out into the hall, and then shut the door and locked it.
“Gross, Rat, you didn’t even flush,” Terry said pushing me from behind. I could have sworn he had been in front of me the moment before.
They all moved so fast around me, it started my head spinning again. They paced around me and said fast angry things, sniffing and wiping their noses. I stumbled from foot to foot trying to keep up with them.
I hadn’t realized they’d been holding me until they started pushing me back into the bathroom. They all took turns pissing in the toilet. I didn’t put together what they were doing until Jasper told me.
“Lunch time, Rat. We made your favorite,” he whispered in my ear.
They pushed me down to my knees. My limbs wouldn’t move right, they were all rubber. They flopped against the rim of the toilet as I tried to fight back.
“Eat up, Rat,” Terry growled.
The punch of urine made my nose sting a moment before my head was thrust down into the warm water. I thrashed in the sewage, but their hold on me was firm. My chest ached for air. My mouth opened on reflex, letting in the foul water. I bucked and thrust myself out of their grasp, falling back against the wall and then into the bathtub. I sat in the tub, vomiting bile on myself. They washed their hands, barking with laughter. Terry stomped his heel into my stomach, blaming me for the urine that splashed on his shoe.
When they were gone, I got the shower on. The water was frigid, but I stayed under the spray, teeth chattering until my vision cleared. I snuck out the sliding glass door and shambled into the trees behind Frank’s house. Naheed ran around the house calling my name, but I stayed hidden, shivering behind the scrub bushes. I was crouched there, motionless, watching the party from my hiding spot until Cory came out on the balcony for a smoke. He leaned over the railing and shouted at Naheed to shut up. I pulled the green goo-ball off from around my wrist. Holding a pinch between my thumb and finger, I whipped out Green like a frog’s tongue at Cory’s head, giving it a good yank when I felt it stick. I shuffled off before the screaming started.
The next morning, my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing. After an hour of twisting in my sheets, I realized my hangover wasn’t going to let me go back to sleep, so I took a look at my messages. There were sixteen texts from Naheed: Where did you go? — Where are you? — Are you alright? — Are you still at the party? — I’m gonna leave without you, asshole! —Answer your phone!!! — Cory Poole just fell from a balcony. He broke his arms and jaw. Totally lost a bunch of teeth. Ambulance is coming. I’m going to leave. I hope you made it home, OK. — What happened to you last night? — Are you alive? — If you’re not dead, I am breaking up with you!!!
I texted her back: Sorry got really drunk and really sick — Phone must have died — I walked home. Never doing that again! — Sucks for Cory.
The phone buzzed before I could drop it back on the nightstand. IGNORE HER, my inner voice shouted. The loudness of it surprised me. I missed the nightstand and dropped my phone on the floor. Every time it buzzed on the carpet, my head throbbed. I left it there.
I went downstairs to the kitchen. I guzzled down water and stuffed a half-frozen breakfast burrito down my throat. The food quelled my stomach enough, but my head was still throbbing.
Tara came in. “How are you feeling,” she asked. “I noticed you came stumbling in at 1:00 in the morning. You’re lucky your father didn’t catch you.”
“As if he cared.” I squinted up at her, my eyes burning in the sunlight. “Why didn’t you tell him?”
“Because, if you told him, he’d be pissed at both of us. Me for being drunk and you for bothering to tell him,” I interrupted.
She kind of crumpled in on herself and nodded. “I’m gonna leave.”
“Later,” I said over a mouth full of tortilla and frozen egg.
She stopped halfway to the stairs. “I didn’t tell him because I was happy you were at a party. I’m —I was happy you had friends. A girlfriend, even. You have turned yourself around so much with your grades and, well – just with everything. You even look happier and healthier. I thought, for a second, things were going to get better. I thought you were coming around, and maybe your Dad would see that and that he would come around too. But you were never going to let me in and neither is he.”
That was quite a blow. I knew Tara was miserable, but I thought that was just part of being in our little fractured family. I thought we had all accepted our places: an absent father, a depressed teenager, and she was the bitchy stepmom. I thought she was here because, like the rest of us, she didn’t believe there was anything better. I had fixed my social life, sort of, but never thought about repairing my family life. I knew how to do it, like I knew everything now; the words that would pull us together were rolling through my head. It started with me standing up to hug her, but my butt stayed planted on the stool, my head hung over the plate, refusing to look into her crying eyes. I wanted to. I really did. So bad my chest ached. That voice in my head, the one I thought was mine, told me, SHE DOESN’T MATTER. I didn’t believe it, but I listened anyway. I blamed the hangover.
She was gone by the time my dad got home. We didn’t talk about it. He saw her clothes were gone and didn’t even bother to ask where she was or if she said anything before she left.
“I guess you’ll be gone soon enough, too,” was all he said before walking up the stairs. He didn’t say it in a sad way like he would miss me, but more like he was grateful he would finally be alone.
By Sunday, the hangover had faded. Naheed was still sending text after text: Why are you ignoring me? – Why are you being weird? – Do you want to see a movie? – Did I do something wrong?
I texted back: Stop being so needy. I felt a flush of panic as I hit send, but it faded just as quickly as it had come. It’s not what I wanted to say, but it didn’t matter. It was time to move on. My crappy family life was all but over. Still, Naheed, my friends, school, the whole damn town was boxing me in. I needed to stretch out, do something amazing.
At school on Monday, Naheed ignored me, probably hoping I’d get the message and apologize. I never did and she didn’t stop ignoring me. It was fine, the voice in my head told me. It was better that way. She was only ever a distraction. Better things were on the way, and I didn’t need distractions.
In the two weeks before Thanksgiving, I thought any feelings I had for Naheed had dried up and withered away. All those squirmy feelings she riled up in me every time I had looked at her had been replaced by a comfortable coldness. I was pretty good at forcing myself not to think of her, and I was pretty sure she was completely over me the way I’d see her laughing with friends as we passed in the hall. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving weekend, we came out of our classes and our eyes just kind of locked. She didn’t have her friends with her this time and she wasn’t laughing. We stared at each other for a long minute before she ran crying into the bathroom. I walked into the boy’s bathroom and shut myself in a stall. The voice in my head was loud and its words callous, but it couldn’t stop the tears.
Of course, my dad and I didn’t do anything for Thanksgiving that year. There was no point in even pretending it mattered with Tara gone. In the weeks after she had left, my dad had yet to say more than a few words a day to me. I never realized how much she held our fragile relationship together. Without her, Dad was a ghost I occasionally found haunting the house before I went to bed. Since the day she moved in, I wanted her gone. She was nothing more than an annoying stranger who made bland dinners. I thought it would be better for Dad and me to heal on our own, but she was the only thing stopping up the wound Mom and Jackson left when they died. Without Tara, that wound reopened and festered. Instead of being thankful we still had each other, I guess Dad and I just reminded one another of what we had lost.
So yeah, no Thanksgiving for us. Holidays were for families, especially Thanksgiving. We ignored it like we ignored each other. Instead of a turkey dinner, I wandered through the housing development with a pizza pocket. ‘For Sale’ signs were stuck in the rolled out grass, which was still so new I could still see the cracks between the strips of sod. One block was finished, but there were two more to go with houses in varying states of completion. An early snow began to fall in big wet flakes. A truck went speeding past. The brake lights flashed and the truck skidded around the corner. Jasper drove a truck, and if it was him, I was in no mood to deal with his shit. I turned off the street and cut into a field along the backside of the house frames. The snow had turned the field into a sheet of white with patches of yellow grass waving in the wind. I wandered into a house with plywood walls to take a break from the cold. I bounced Yellow and Teal off the beams. At peace, not a thought in my head, I zoned out to their rhythmic thumping.
“Hey, asshole!” Jasper shouted, ruining my meditation.
The goo-balls dropped to the ground, sticking without a wiggle. I cursed myself for stopping in the house. I should have just kept on walking to be sure I lost him. Jasper stood in the doorway staring at me, the world turning white behind him.
“How’s Cory doing?” I asked with a humorless smile. I had heard he had casts on both arms and would be wearing dentures for the rest of his life.
“You threw something at him, didn’t you?” he asked. “I saw you down in the trees before he fell. I saw you throw something.”
“I was pretty drunk. I don’t remember a lot beyond being drowned in piss.” I stepped closer, picking up Yellow and Teal and stuffing them into the pockets of my jacket. MAKE IT GO AWAY, the voice in my head thrummed.
“I fucking know it was you, Rat-turd.” He shook his head, baring his teeth and dragging his breath through them. “I’ve been waiting to get you alone, so I can take care of this myself.”
“Fine.” Purple unwrapped itself from around my wrist and slid up my arm. Beneath the shirt I wore under my coat, it coated my chest and wrapped around my torso. “What are you gonna do about it?” I asked.
“What do you think? Fucking eye for an eye, Rat-turd. I’m going to knock your teeth out and break your arms.”
Jasper came striding forward, closing the space between us. He threw a fist at my face. I slapped it aside. He gave me a quick look of surprise before slamming his other fist into my stomach. He hollered in pain, pulling his hand back to see why it was in so much pain. His red knuckles pushed out the wrong way. His middle finger curled to the side.
“What the hell?” Jasper screamed, holding his broken hand to his stomach.
I lifted my shirt to show him the purple surface wrapped around my stomach. It had hardened like steel before he punched me, but was smooth and warm on my skin a moment later.
“What is that?” Jasper yelled.
“It’s the best toy ever,” I told him with a proud smile. I opened my hand and the purple ball unwound itself from around my waist and fell into my palm. SHOW IT MORE, the voice commanded.
I threw the goo-ball at Jasper. It splatted against his face, covering his eyes and nose. He pulled at the purple goop with his good hand but only ended getting it caught as well. The knock of his knees hitting the floor echoed through the house. Purple oozed over his ears and came together at the back of his head. It slid down his neck and over his shoulders. It closed over his feet in seconds and he was left looking like a huge, bumpy eggplant.
The snow was dumping outside. It took my attention for a moment. This nice, peaceful feeling fell over me, watching the big flakes drift down. When I looked back to Jasper, he was already gone. Only the purple goo-ball was left sitting in sawdust. I picked up the ball and held it to the dim gray light coming through the window. In the translucent purple, a few dark specks shrunk into nothing. I bounced it against the floor and walked out into the snow.
Monday morning, Mr. Maldonado, the vice-principal, pulled me out of class and walked me to the school office. There, a police officer and a detective flanked the principal, Mr. Tuft. The detective asked the questions and I gave him the answers he wanted to hear: “Yes, Jasper and his friends bullied me,” and “The last time I saw them was the night they dunked my head in a toilet bowl,” and “Yes, I hated him and wanted to hurt him,” and “No, like punch him in the face, that’s all.” The detective asked the same questions in different ways a few times before thanking me and sending me back to class.
That week the whole town came together to search for Jasper. They walked in long lines through the fields and forest out behind the housing development. We hadn’t talked in weeks, but Naheed asked me to go with her to help look. A last ditch effort to rekindle us, I think. I told her I was busy.
A lot of rumors flew around about Jasper’s disappearance. Some say he ran away. Some say he fell into a sinkhole in the woods. I imagine there were rumors about me too. I mean, I didn’t hear any whispers, but some kids at school were always turning their heads away when I caught them staring at me.
One girl who stared at me a lot, Cali, asked me to prom and I agreed to go. Usually, the voice in my head would start shouting anytime something social came up, telling me how useless it all was, but this time it said, YES.
I didn’t much like Cali or any of my friends by then. They were all the same: dumb and tragic. Everything mattered so much to them, and I just couldn’t make myself care about anything. If I’m being honest with myself, I never really liked anyone, except for Naheed. But the voice in my head started shouting otherwise every time I thought of her, so I tried not to think of her.
Tara stopped by the house the same night as prom to pick up some boxes of her stuff. Dad didn’t want to be anywhere near her, so he went out to the bars. She came in as I was staring in the bathroom mirror, working my bowtie into a hopeless knot.
“Do you need help?” She asked.
“What’s happened to you?” she asked as she pulled the knot loose.
“What? I’ve never tied one before,” I told her.
“No, I mean you’ve changed,” she said as her deft fingers pushed and pulled the red silk into loops and folds that magically became a bow.
“Growing up I guess. Happens to a lot of teenagers.” I smiled and admired the smooth knot and even loops of the bowtie perfectly situated in my black collar.
“Yeah, I guess, but you are a completely different kid. Just a year ago you were… I mean, you used to look so…”
“So much like a rat?” I finished for her.
“Hell, Richard, you never looked like a rat.” She frowned at me. “I mean, maybe you grew into your nose. And your teeth — I mean you never had braces, but now they are all straight. It’s just strange. You’re so run-of-the-mill handsome now.”
“Gee, thanks. Got any more compliments before I head out?” I sneered at her a lot harder than I meant to.
“You’re not Richard anymore.” She said searching in my eyes as if she was looking for him.
“No, I’m not, but you never liked him anyway.”
She shook her head, sad and slow. “I wanted to love you and your father so much for so long. But I was never welcome… No matter how hard I tried, it would never matter. I would never be like your dead mother.”
A flush of anger warmed my cheeks. The bands around my wrist rippled and bumped like gooseflesh against my arm. I had an image in my head of the goo-balls bouncing up and down on her, so fast, she turned into a fine red mist I could wipe off the tile with a paper towel. The voice in my head rang like church bells: GO AHEAD. SHOW IT THAT IT WAS NEVER NEEDED. YOU NEVER NEEDED IT TO HELP YOU. IT DOESN’T MATTER TO YOU.
“I’m sorry, that was mean. You don’t deserve that,” she said, wiping at the tears on her cheeks.
I wrapped my hand around my wrist. One of the goo-balls swelled up into my palm. I held it down. The voice in my head went on and on pushing me to let the goo-balls do what they were made to do, but I pushed back. Ignoring the voice pinched my thoughts and it was a struggle to get the words out. I got them out, though. They needed to be said and I had a feeling it was going to be my last chance. “No, you never were going to be a part of our lives like she was.” The bands writhed beneath my palm, eager. I squeezed them down flat. “But, we – I –should’ve welcomed you more.” The voice had stopped making words and was just thrumming. A needling pain worked behind my eyes. I had to stop for a moment. I rubbed at my eyes trying to soothe the pain. I imagine Tara thought I was wiping away tears. “We should have made you part of our lives in a different way. We are weak and sad, Dad and me, but you didn’t deserve to take all the misery we constantly dumped on you. I’m sorry for my part in it.”
She laughed. “See, not the same Richard at all.” She kissed me on the cheek and said, “You go dance with Naheed and have fun. Treat her well. She’s a good one. Don’t let her go anytime soon.”
I nodded my head, not wanting to correct her by telling her how much of an asshole I had really become. Not that I could have said anything else by that point anyways. The voice ruined that first little spot of happiness I had felt since leaving Naheed. Its violent words roiled in my brain until the needling pain in my head had become a pounding agony. Tara wrapped me up in a hug. My skin crawled at her touch. When she pulled away I couldn’t see her as a person anymore. She was fabric and flesh wrapped around a bumpy trunk with bending limbs sprouting off the sides. I was horrified by how alien it was. If she would have stayed a moment longer, I know I would have thrown a ball at her.
The headache had faded when the limo came at sunset, but it was far from gone. The limo was already filled with squirming kids. Cali was somewhere in the jungle of limbs wrapped in shiny, stretched fabric. It was only after she kissed my cheek and whispered sultry promises into my ear that I could tell her apart from the other tangles of limbs wrapped in Easter pastels. All the sweaty faces floating above the black tuxes were too similar to tell apart.
The auditorium had been turned into Van Gogh’s Starry Night done in gold and silver. As I looked over the crowd, the headache I had since leaving the house pounded in my temples. Everyone looked the same. They were all the same things, twitching and writhing together. There were so many of them. Too many. Then I thought about how many more there were all over the world, and I got a cold, dizzy feeling.
“Wow! It looks great in here!” the excited pink thing at my side said. “Jane and the homecoming committee did an awesome job, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said, rubbing my cold hands over my warm cheeks.
“C’mon, let’s dance!” The pink thing grabbed my hand and pulled me to the center of the dance floor. Jostling black tuxedos and bright dresses filled with stinking, squirming grubs jerked and swung around me to the rhythm of the music.
I did my best to mimic everyone else: smile and wiggle and laugh and wiggle. I couldn’t keep it up very long. The music throbbed and swelled along with the pain in my head. The smell of perfume and sweat clogged my mouth and nostrils. I couldn’t breathe. In the flashing lights above, I watched the steam rise from their hot sweating bodies. My mouth started watering and my stomach cramped. I was going to vomit. I shouted something about getting some punch to the pink thing in front of me and slid off of the dance floor. The pink thing whined and mewled behind me, but I lost it in the crowd.
Out in the hall, I crouched down and put my head between my knees. I tried to catch my breath while rubbing the back of my neck. The end of the movie Carrie kept rolling over and over in my mind. In my version, instead of pig’s blood and fire, there were zigzagging streaks of color that swallowed up the screaming teens until everything was nice and quiet.
“Are you okay?”
I looked up and saw Naheed standing against the opposite wall with her arms crossed over her chest. She didn’t look like everything else did. She wasn’t another squirming thing. She was Naheed.
“I don’t know.”
“You look like you’re going to be sick. Are you drunk already?”
“No, It’s… something is wrong with me.” I stood up looking at my shaking hands. “I – I hate everything.”
“Oh, good. So it’s not just me you hate.” She dropped her head and shuffled her feet. Her arms wrapped around her waist.
“No, I don’t hate you. I don’t want to hate anyone. But my head keeps telling me I do.”
I took a step towards her, my hands out. Maybe if she could’ve just hugged me, the thrumming voice in my head would stop telling me to squish her into nothing. Maybe I could have took off the goo-balls writhing around my wrist and thrown them in the trash. Maybe the voice would have gone away and only one person would have died. Maybe one hug could’ve saved the world. But she put a hand up, stopping me before I got any closer.
“Huh, sounds awful. Also, sounds like Cali’s problem now.” She sneered. It was ugly. It made her look like all the other things.
“I think I need help.”
“Go drink some water and sober up. That should help.” She walked away wiping at her eyes.
I threw the orange ball where she had been standing. Orange spread over the brick wall. It took only seconds to reach the ceiling and floor. The pink thing found me in the hall. It asked what the orange stuff was, reaching out to poke it. I left it to its fate and opened the doors back to the auditorium. I threw Green and Yellow into the crowd. The pink thing’s limbs were stuck in Orange and it was squealing like a mouse caught in a glue trap. The goo slid over its head, cutting off its screams as it begged me for help. I pushed open the exit and walked out into the clear, cool night.
The black, starless sky stretched above me. The thought of emptiness struck me as a good idea. It seemed right to me. People, these ugly, grubby things in clothes, were always procreating, filling up every patch of Earth with their fleshy, wide-mouthed maggots. It was all so cluttered with their busy limbs. The time had come for purging. The Earth needed to be cleared up for something better. That was it, I realized,: that great or amazing something I knew was going to happen. The final purpose the balls were meant for – what I was meant for – to clear it all away and start over fresh. I stared up at the black vastness, and I could feel something staring back, waiting for me to get started.
Out in the parking lot, two things giggled and groped each other. The sight of it sickened me, so I walked in the other direction. I took the teal band off my wrist and threw the ball over my shoulder in their direction. The giggling stopped.
“Hey, Rat-turd,” Terry shouted from the hood of his car. I’d never mistake him for the rest of the things.
He had a bottle in one hand and a beer can in the other. His date took the bottle of booze, rolled her eyes at me and took a swig. Beside him, Cory took a drag of the cigarette he held in the fingertips sticking out of his cast. Terry cocked his head back and sucked at the beer until it was gone. He threw the can against the ground then jumped off the hood and landed on it. He stumbled as it crunched beneath his feet. Once he got close enough for me to smell it, he let out a long, rattling belch. His breath was sour. The bitterness of it pinched my nose. The corners of his mouth hung down as he stood there, swaying from side to side in front of me, silent like he was waiting for me to say something.
“I know it wazyou,” Terry slurred, jabbing his finger into my shoulder. He stumbled backward and then regained himself. “He said you threw something at Cory, and he was gonna sm-smash your face in for it.”
Terry’s date took another drink from the bottle and screamed, “Kick his asssss, Terry.”
Cory stood puffing his chest behind Terry but didn’t say anything.
“He came after you, but you got rid of him somehow. I don’t know how, but somehow.” Terry stomped back to his car and took the bottle from his date. He took two long pulls off of it and shivered, breathing through the burning booze. “Because you are a fucking rat. You spread your plague around and ruin everything. That’s why. I-I mean that’s how.”
I laughed. He was right. I was a plague.
Terry rushed forward and punched me in the mouth. “You fucking, fucking spreading your filth around. Someone has got to exterminate you. I’m the damn exterminator.”
I stumbled back. My hand came away from my mouth, bloodied. I spit some on the ground.
“There you go, spreading more germs. You can’t even help yourself, you rat fuckin’ piece of shit.”
I pulled the purple band off my wrist and held it up so he could see it reform into a ball. “He’s in here,” I told him.
“What?” Terry asked, rolling his fists, ready to hit me again.
“Jasper is in this ball.”
Another fist caught me beneath the eye. My cheek throbbed with heat. I could feel blood trickling down. I stumbled back and felt the cut on my face. Terry was damn fast when he was drunk.
Terry looked at his knuckles. Wiped them on his slacks. “Not, getting me infected. Not spreading your…”
I was done listening to his drunken rambling. I threw the purple ball against his chest, cutting him short. His hand instinctively went to it, only to be swallowed up. He started to scream something, but the purple oozed over his teeth and went down into his mouth, pulling the hand along with it. He dropped and thrashed on the ground as strands licked out over him to pull more of his body into his widening mouth.
Terry’s date screamed first, so I threw the amber goo-ball at her. It enveloped her and shrunk down to its normal size before it bounced back to my hand. Cory started running. I threw Blue against his back and it burst like a water balloon, sending him sprawling forward. It had covered him by the time he hit the ground, and then Blue gushed outward like a flood, spreading through the parking lot, covering the cars.
The windows of the school glowed orange, yellow and green. A corner of the roof fell in and Orange pulsed out into the open air. I threw Chartreuse out into the road. It spread like a wave of slime, holding cars in place as they slid screeching into it. I threw Red far into the air and watched it spread out as big as the Football field it fell on. The lights and bleachers cracked and screamed beneath its weight. A rush of air blew over me when it landed on the grass. I threw the rest, one after another, as far as I could, and I could throw so far.
In the morning, when everything was cleared away, I was filled with the proud sense of accomplishment. The voice in my head purred to me with praises of a job well done. It assured me that the small twinges of guilt I had about Dad, Tara, and Naheed being gone were the last ties to my former pointless existence. Cutting them away freed me to do the great mission laid out before me. The whole town was gone and I didn’t have to be sorry for a speck of it. No, I had a purpose and I couldn’t worry about the faces that were already fading from my mind. What I was sorry for was that I had started before the sun rose. I wished I could have seen my town covered in all that color. There was so little of it left by morning. Still, with the rest of world waiting out there, it was no big loss.