The Off Switch

I just beat Keith Jeffers out of the cafeteria. Call Guinness! Jeffers, The Great Lightspeed, nipping at my heels for once, not the other way around. He wouldn’t even pass for a jock–scrawny, weasel-faced, reddish mop of hair. I can smell his body odor. Any closer, and his legs’ll get tangled up in mine. My bell-bottoms flap around my ankles.

“No way!” he guffaws. Keith’s the only one in gym class who actually laughs his way around the wide, wide track while the rest of us lag behind, wheezing.

Here comes Mark Walford with his bowl haircut, juggling an armful of books, looking everywhere but where he’s going. I give him a shove. Down he goes, books flying.

That costs me my lead; Keith matches me step for step now. “You and Sandee going out tonight?” he asks. Today’s Friday.

“Tomorrow.” He knows I never miss Chico and the Man. We slow to a walk, knowing what’s up ahead. By the time we reach the first floor, we’re practically crawling.

“Metal,” I growl, “shop.”

Where the teacher is paddle-happy, especially if you’re late. But they can’t crook their little fingers and make me show up whenever they want! I know my Constitutional rights as an American citizen.

All right, no paddling–substitute teacher today. Final bell, released for the day: I lose Keith in the mob of erupting, laughing, spitball-shooting classmates. Home to dinner. After Stepmom–mom to me, really–serves up potato stroganoff Hamburger Helper transformed into something you couldn’t match in any fancy restaurant, and I help her with the dishes and haul out the garbage, I move our phone from the kitchen counter to the kitchen table, tip back in my chair until I touch the wall, and spin Sandee’s number.

“Have you heard?” she asks.

“What’s that?”

“Mark Walford. He said he’s going to kill himself.”

Mark Walford. Round moon-face, taller than Keith but shorter than me–not many people tower over me–overweight enough for Keith to yell “Hey Meatball!,” sheepish enough for Joe Teal to tag him “Dork,” and enough into all those radiation-spawned city-stomping monsters for me to call him “Godzilla.”

Actually, before that, I called him Wallflower. Somewhere along the line, I changed it. It was me who dubbed Keith The Great Lightspeed, and that caught on, but I guess lightning doesn’t strike twice. Meatball was what everyone called Mark, including me, though I still kind of hope they’ll start using Godzilla.

Sandee’s in Walford’s Third Bell English class, and she saw it all. Mark raised his hand, and when called on, stood up and made his announcement.

“What did Mrs. Olson do?” I asked.

“She just asked him to sit down. Had him stay after class for a talk.”

“He’s clowning.”

“Do you know how he said he’d do it?”

She waits. Finally I ask, “How?”

“He thinks that somewhere on the human body, there’s something like an off switch. Press it, trip it, and that’s it. No pain, no mess. You’re just dead.”

Mark Walford and I go back to Fifth Grade. I first met him when he stopped me in the hall–why me, I don’t know–and showed me a book from the school library. History of the French Revolution or something like that. Lot of pictures of the guillotine, or is that just my memory? He opened it to the title page, pointed to a note scratched across the bottom.


I looked up at him, trying to place his name–I’d seen him around. “Why?”

“Just do it!” He giggled, nodded, his face squeezed up like Mr. Magoo’s.

All right. I took the thing out of his hands, did as he said, and found another note.


“Here, borrow it.” He shoved it into my hands, and before I could ask if he’d properly checked it out, he’d waddled away.

I took his book home. And flipped to page eighty, where I was advised to


And so on. After spending a whole evening sitting on my bed with the book open beside me, flipping back and forth per the blamed notes, I reached the last page. And read:


The next day I found the waddling smirker I now knew was Mark Walford, and handed his book back. “Ha ha,” I said.

“Oh!” He gave a start. “Not me! No, I didn’t write those! Just thought you’d get a kick out of it.”

I snorted, and walked off.

He’s always been goofy like that. I didn’t hate him right away, not after the book thing. One day I saw him like I saw everyone, more or less; the next I was calling him Wallflower and Godzilla. Never really noticed the change, and I didn’t feel any different afterwards than before. People hated him, and so did I. That was about it.

My “debut” happened about two or three months after I met him, in class with a substitute teacher. The teacher, a skinny nervous type always adjusting her clothes, had us write one-page stories and stand up in class to read them.

I called mine “The Day I Kicked Walford’s Butt.”

Actually I never even talked to him, much less touched him, and everyone knew it. But I stood up, paper in both hands, and practically shouted it out. My audience howled, cheered, and one guy pounded on his desk laughing. The substitute teacher just listened with a clouded look on her face, and Mark sat with folded arms. Neither of them said anything, then or afterwards. I never expected them to.

When I finished I dropped back into my chair, flushed with victory. I knew then the feeling of being carried off the field on everyone’s shoulders after hitting the winning home run; of slaying the evil supervillain and saving the world; of starring in a smash-hit movie, flashbulbs popping, people clapping me on the back and asking for autographs.

Northland High, my daytime home since last year, sleeps in one of the grassy suburbs all over the north end of town. I can walk to it from our townhouse, like I could walk to Walden Middle School in the years before Sandee. It’s a big granite and glass shoebox on the outside, but inside it fades back into the 1920’s, the lockers worn and dented, the wooden desks built for kindergarteners–it’s always a challenge for me to wriggle into them–the desktops etched with graffiti and notes since before we were born. One desk in the library has V.E. DAY! MAY 8 1945 cut into it. The windows by the stairs run from first to second floor, and on clear mornings you get dazzled by the sun.

Word of Mark’s stunt gets around as fast as you’d expect. Monday, at lunch, I have my hands full trying to protect Sandee from getting mobbed by Keith, Dave, and just about everyone else who’s not trapped in a class.

“Is it true?”

“Did he really…”

“Boys!” Sandee doesn’t look up from her meatloaf. “Pipe down.”

Pipe down they do. My willowy Sandee, whose sunny hair hangs level with her chin, could stop an auctioneer in his verbal tracks. Pretty as a pinup, but watch out for her voice when she raises it.

She sips milk through a straw from her half-pint carton. She always finishes it in three or four sips, removing the straw the instant she’s slurping on air. “Yes, he really did say he’s gonna kill himself.”

“Turn himself off,” Keith guesses. “Not shooting himself or anything. He’s just gonna push some button–”

“His belly button!” I say.

Sandee spoons up her mashed potatoes. After elegantly swallowing, she brushes a soft strand from her face and says, “He went to the library on Saturday and checked out every anatomy book they have. Anything medical.”

The guys are all over her in an instant. “How do you know this?” “Where’d you hear it?”

“I asked him.”

She asked him.

Sandee’s that kind of person. She won’t let her folks put out regular mousetraps; it’s gotta be the kind that lures the rodents in and locks them inside. Then she takes them to a field across the street and lets them go. Since we first met in Northland’s lobby and I accidentally knocked her down, she’d never really mentioned Walford…but I’m so used to everyone hating him, I’m caught off guard to find someone who doesn’t.

“He’s a clown,” I remind her. “Looking for attention.”

“He said,” she continues, “that the preferred way, for people who don’t want to leave a mess behind, is overdosing on sleeping pills. Either that, or monoxiding yourself in your car. He said he doesn’t want to go out like Hemingway–”


The others have gone silent; only the undercurrent of a hundred lunch conversations are heard. “Could we get off this?”


I always sense, somehow, the exact moment she gets up. I always get up with her, and we do it now, jumping to our feet as if we’d counted to three.

“How do you do that,” Keith mumbles. He knows full well the answer: We don’t know. We just know, somehow. We’ve told him that a hundred times.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday pass; then Sandee tells me, “He’s still talking about it.”

Again I’m caught off guard. I’d forgotten it in the everyday routines, the after-school cones at Dairy Queen, Sandee bringing her Queen and Bad Company albums over to my house to play them over my big speakers, English homework I can do in my sleep, Algebra homework I hate and have to get Dad to help me with.

“He’s still talking about it,” I repeat dumbly. “Are you encouraging him?”

She gives me her cute little flutter-eyed shrug, biting her lip. “He needs someone to talk to.”

I stop. She stops, and we face each other in the hall while everyone else swirls and eddies around us.

“Don’t get mad.” She brushes a hair from her face.

“I’m not mad.” I sigh. “But do you see what he’s doing? You’re giving him what he wants. He’s gonna follow you everywhere now.”

“You’re probably right. But…”

“But what?”

“He’s going into more detail–”

“For crying out loud!” Had I been with the guys, I’d have put it another way, but you don’t use words like that around Sandee.

“He just talks so seriously about it.”

I try to fathom this. Mark Walford, who scribbles pictures of Tokyo monsters in art class with purple and yellow crayons, giggling over them while everyone stares, whose nervous goofball grin never leaves his face.

“He said,” Sandee goes on, “he’s been reading through those library books. Claims he’s got books stacked almost to the ceiling. What he’s looking for is probably in the head. That would make sense, right? That’s where it all happens. Of course, you’ve got the skull protecting everything…”

Suddenly I wonder if Walford’s ever seen The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on TV. Was it Boris Karloff playing that creepy guy? Backing Danny Kaye into a corner: “Did you know that an icicle inserted in the brain melts slowly and leaves no trace?”

After noon I change the concrete jungle of the school for the scented wonderland of Sandee’s room. She’s the only girl I know who takes her scents seriously; she studies the subject like I study Friday night sitcoms, and when she made the big announcement that she had decided on a career in perfuming, I barely even noticed. Her dad gave her a gentle reminder that “we already know that, dear.”

Her family line comes down from the Massachusetts Puritans–her dad’s side, that is–and mother’s side from cabaret France. Damn it all, it’s dad who’s in charge. His daughter’s bedroom door is to be wide open when “that boy” comes to visit. (I can’t wait till I make the rules.) We abide the rule; we don’t complain.

“Jon.” Sandee reaches under her bed.

I flop down on that bed; it’s an old canopied model with the canopy removed, littered with all her stuffed bears and unicorns. “I’ve already guessed. Let’s see it.”

She tosses it onto one of her three pillows: a book with an exploded view of a head and the word ANATOMY in its title. The writer is someone or other M.D. Ph.D.

I yawn. “You just can’t get your mind off that guy.”

This whole thing has an altogether different meaning than if I was talking about the star linebacker or the student council president. In this case, I’m only stating a plain fact.

“Snuggle with me.” She falls down beside me, the book between us.

The door is open…a little. Dad never told us exactly how wide open it had to be. If he doesn’t approve, he’ll holler. We kick up our feet, side by side on our bellies, and Sandee opens the book.

The pages include clear films that superimpose different red, blue and purple systems over an outline of a body.

Circulatory system: Actually three independent systems working together: the heart(cardiovascular), lungs(pulmonary), and the arteries and veins and such(systemic). The average adult has five to six quarts of blood. It takes a blood cell about twenty seconds to circulate through the whole system.

So cut your wrists. Someone told me once, I forget who, that you should slit them lengthwise, not across. Not sure why.

“Not your throat,” Sandee is saying. “It’s actually, like, really hard to cut your own throat.”

“Six quarts. How much has to run out before you die?”

“Don’t know.” She turns the page.

I read on. The pulmonary circulatory system sends oxygen-depleted blood away from the heart, through the pulmonary artery to the lungs…

Well old Walford would like the sound of that “oxygen-deprived,” wouldn’t he? Tried and true ways to do that, like, say, hanging yourself…

Respiratory system. A lack of oxygen is called hypoxia. Anoxia is when you’re all out. Brain cells last four to six minutes without oxygen…

“I wouldn’t recommend hanging myself,” I hear myself say. Pages and clear transparencies fly under Sandy’s fingers, lots of rustling.

“So did you find it here?” I flick one of her stray hairs away from her eye–I do that almost every day, and it’s come to be automatic. She doesn’t even notice.

“Find what?”

“Mark’s magic button.”

Seeing all this stuff in the book reassures me, somehow. Laid out plain, the whole network of expertly-rigged arteries and veins and capillaries, the nerve endings and the array of tightly-packed organs all coordinated together, makes it clear pretty quick: there isn’t any way to just shut it all off at once, except by sitting on a bomb, maybe, but that’s not what old Wallflower’s talking about. It’d be like trying to stop a whole city at once, all the businesses, the transportation, the utilities. I feel like I’ve been taken. That dope! Was he ever really serious?

“Oh,” Sandee says, “that.”

“‘Oh, that?’ He hasn’t brought it up?”

“How would I know?”

“He talks to you.”

“Not that much. I gave him the number to the crisis hotline.”

“Nice of you.”

“Better safe than sorry, Jon.”

“I guess so.”

“You know, sometimes couples make a pact to meet in the afterlife. We’d fill up the bathtub–”

“We?” I squint.

“And cut our wrists–”


She holds my gaze. “That, dear, is the kind of thing Mark is thinking about.”

“That’s his problem. Or would be, if he was really serious. He gave himself away with all this talk about magic buttons. If he hadn’t, he might have had me worried.”

She rests her chin on her folded hands, chewing her lower lip.

I go on. “You’re seeing him like you see Mimi and Karl.” Her pet cats. Strays, till my angel found them and took them in. Something occurs to me. “You know, they probably eat the mice you used to catch in those cages–”

“Jon!” Her eyes pierce. I always cringe a little when she does that. Sandee has the damndest knack for making me feel like a paddled four-year-old. I blubber out an apology I know I’ll regret later.

“But Sandee, what’s gotten into you?” I raise myself up on my elbow, facing her. “You sound morbid.”

“If things ever go south for us,” she twirls the stray hair with a finger, “you wouldn’t want to make a pact? Relax, dear. I’m kidding.”

I get up off the bed. “This isn’t funny anymore.”

“Dear.” She pouts.

“I’m serious!”

“How about we close the door and count how many seconds go by before Dad starts yelling?”

I start to slam the door, catch myself at the last second, click it shut softly. Then I attack my girl. She giggles, I playfully snarl, we wrestle, we get farther than I thought but not far enough when her father pounds on the door.

Sandee bounces off the bed and opens the door, smiling sweetly through tousled hair. “We’re just studying, Dad.”

He’s a smallish guy, testosterone-impaired and inches below my height, hair turning aluminum. Yet somehow, when he gets in your face, he magnifies in your mind’s eye till he’s Goliath. “Sandee…”

Great. we’re in for another one of his speeches. Makes no difference; I’m remembering the last couple of minutes with an increasing sense of disbelief. Nausea wells up in my stomach.

“Sorry, sir.” I slink around him. “I need to go.”

Sandee calls after me. I don’t answer.

By the time I arrive home, I feel sick.

The next one to get in my face is Keith. He pounces on me the next morning outside school, like he’s been waiting for me. Dave hovers behind him.

“Sandee’s talking to Walford?” Keith wants to know. His face is lit up, like someone’s telling him he’s won a million. “Is that true?”

“Not now.” I stride past and through the door.

“What the hell, man!” He follows me. “He’s trying to steal your girl. He’s stealing your girrr-lll!” Practically dancing now. He only dances like that when something’s really got him started.

I know what he’s doing, of course. I’ve seen it before. Fights don’t happen that often here, but when they do, it usually turns out that Keith stirred them up. He never gets his own hands dirty–he’s too smart for that–but when he sees a chance he starts in, jeering, howling, egging people on until next thing you know, fisticuffs have broken out and Keith is at the front of the crowd, cheering the loudest.

“Cool it,” I tell him.

But he’s running off down the hall now, pinball-like, ricocheting off the lockers and walls in a crazy zig-zag, shouting Mark’s name, Sandee’s name, my name, a good dozen times before the noise fades.

By afternoon it’s all over the school. It’s multiplied, grown like a cancer at high speed. By Sixth Bell I’ve forgotten all about the weekend, about Chico and the Man, even about what Sandee and I will do this weekend, everything but that the seventh guy now has stopped me in the hall and pushed his face at me, wanting to know if Mark Walford, who last week was talking suicide, has now been reborn as Don Juan.

“Is it really true?”

“You gonna let him get away with that?”

“Walford? Walford?”

By noon I’ve sworn myself hoarse that it was just Keith blowing everything out of proportion. Now I keep walking and try to ignore the laughter. One guy even makes kissing sounds; I almost hit him.

They know good and well, of course, that it’s all bullcrap. But one thing’s true: Sandee is talking with him. Seeking him out, even, to talk with him. I understand this because I know Sandee; she would do it for anyone, and had done it for a lot of people, guys and girls both.

But Mark Walford is different. He’s the school leper. If he hooked up with a female more like himself, a dumpy wallflower like Melody White or bag-lady Sam Sablinsky, we’d all nod and think, “Right on schedule,” and let fly with the jokes. A girl in Sandee’s league upsets that status-quo. I’m being dragged into it, hearing it all day long, and it’s only November.

I have to nip this in the bud now.

I’ve never actually “called someone out.” Never even seen it happen–just the occasional story about someone getting ganged up on after school, and those are few and far between. How do you really fight, anyway? Fistfights, real brawls, are something new. It’s not like I go out and look for them. I don’t worry about Walford hurting me; he could no more do that than a lamb.

Maybe I don’t really have to fight. Just pushing him down and yelling at him should do it.

–No, maybe I should leave a mark. Black eye. Bloody nose. That should be easy enough, just hit him hard there a couple of times.

–But what if he cries? Would that do it, or should I still leave a mark on him?

–A mark. Leave a mark that’ll stay a while, keep everyone reminded.

–Think, think…the time’ll be here before I know it. Normally school drags, but today it’s flying by. Class after class passes, bell after bell, I gotta make up my mind, man.

After metal shop I see Walford at his locker. I breeze up to him, weaving through the flow of chattering students. His face is as I expected. Twice I’ve seen guys get mad at him for some reason, and he always folds up, eyes panicking, talking in a trembly voice.

“Hey Godzilla.” I’m toe to toe with him. “Anyone ever tell you, you talk too much?”

“You mean Sandee?”

“No, I mean the Fonz. You getting ideas about my girl?”

“I only talked to her!” he wails, indignant as a six-year-old.

Two…four…a dozen or so students watch us. Dave is one, Keith another, hanging back, smirking to split his damned mug in two.

“Outside! After school!” I smack my fist into my palm and stalk off.

I feel lightheaded, a little nauseous, like this is some kind of weird dream. Two minutes, I tell myself; two minutes and life can go on. Then I’ll have a long talk with my steady about how the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I still haven’t decided: black eye, or bloody nose? It would be my first try at either. Maybe this’ll take longer than I hope.

The last dismissal bell sounds when I decide. Tears–that’s it. On the first day of sixth grade, some guy got thrown against a locker and cried, and he heard about it all year long. No one let him forget it. So I’ll shove Walford to the ground, hard, and if that doesn’t do it I’ll kick him, or hit him in the face or something until he does. Then everyone will be so busy going on about it that they’ll forget everything else.

Sandee’s waiting outside the classroom door, her face like Mark’s a few minutes ago. Somehow she managed to be there right when the bell sounded. The echo of that rapid-fire ring is still fading away when she sees me and practically drops her books to grab me.

“Jon. Did you really…?”


“He could really be suicidal!”

“He’s looking for attention, remember?”

“We don’t know that. If he’s–”

“He’s not. That fantasy of his, remember? His ‘switch?’ He wouldn’t have gone on about that if he was really serious. Am I right? And if you hadn’t given him every encouragement in the world, I wouldn’t have to do this.”

I push past her; she scrambles to catch up. “Call it off, all right? For me?”

“Can’t.” I reach the bank of glass doors, shove one open, hard, as if warming up for the violence. “The whole school’s out there waiting.”

And they are.

It’s not the whole school, but it’s enough. Others are flocking away down the street, or climbing into their parents’ cars. Sandee is one of those: her dad insists on dropping her off and picking her up every day. But The Event has drawn enough of a crowd to put my worries to rest.

Now I just have to get on with it.

Out on the grass between the building and the parking lot, Mark is waiting. Everyone gives him a wide berth, as if the earth is about to crack open and swallow him.

The weather’s blustery, cold even for early November, and it occurs to me we haven’t seen the sun in days. The wind kicks up, and the flag fasteners make a steady clanging against the pole. Walford has his hands in his pockets, face white.

I should stride up to him, back straight and head high, like Napoleon walking through a city he just conquered. But it’s taking all my strength not to shake.

“Go,” somebody yells. “Come on!” shouts someone else.

Walford (Wallflower! Godzilla!) meets my eyes. He couldn’t be more scared if I was the bogeyman.

He opens his mouth. “Jon–”

I shove him down with both hands, stand over him with fists clenched. “DON’T YOU EVER TALK TO MY GIRL, PUNK! EVER! YOU GOT THAT?”

He lies in a heap. Doesn’t try to sit up. He doesn’t want to encourage me, or any of the others crowded around us who are screaming their heads off. His lips are tight, face squeezing up–tears? Yes, they’re brimming. Thank God, he’s cooperating.

“Whatsa matter, little baby?” I scream out my relief, screaming to be heard over everyone’s jeers, and gloats, and cries of “Fight! Fight!” “Wuss!” “Ha ha!” Everyone’s looking to get their licks in, at least with words.

He bursts into tears, all at once, wetting his whole face in a second. He sobs, shoulders heaving, covering his face with both hands. It’s over. I want to pump his hand and thank him.

“Kick him.”

I almost jump out of my skin. Keith’s crouching beside me.

“What are you waiting for?” He shouts, jumps. “Bash his head!”

“Bash his head!” someone else joins in.

I kick Walford in the ribs. He cringes and curls up like a fetus, trembling. Faint sobs float up to my ears.

Then inspiration strikes. “Nah.” I wave Keith off. “Ain’t worth my time.”

I start off, careful not to hurry, wanting nothing but to get out of there and back to normal life. With every step, I breathe easier.

“Well hell!” Keith says, somewhere behind me. “He’s worth mine all right–”

I don’t look back.

Most of my dinner stays uneaten, only picked at. Ruthie, my stepmother, wraps my plate in aluminum foil and puts it in the oven for me.

We’ve all given Mark Walford the standard “picking-on” treatment: teasing, taunting, knocking his books from his hands, pushing him down. But this was the first time I’d ever actually kicked him. We’d always threatened to “beat his ass,” but it was just threats, things we said but didn’t really think about, like his own death threats on himself.

“Sandee called,” Ruthie says brightly. She caught Dad on the rebound after the family wars that blew my parents apart. I was three at the time, and remember none of it. Birth Mother is back in California, raising my older brother while Dad and the wonderful woman I think of as my mother helps Dad oversee my growth here.

I wait until Dad and Stepmom are nestled in front of the TV, then put the phone on the kitchen table, collapse into my chair and dial Sandee’s number.

She answers on the second ring. “Jon?”

“Hi, Sandee.”

“Did you really kick him?”

“Once. Keith was yelling, and…Sandee, he’s not going to kill himself over this, all right?”

“How do you know?”

“None of this would have happened if you hadn’t–”

“How do you know, Jon?”

Oh, sheesh. How many times do I have to explain this? “Did you call him again?”

“I had to look up his number. Lucky for you it was listed.” Sandee’s own number isn’t. Neither is ours.

“What’d the Wallflower say?”


“Sandee, look. I’m trying to help you lighten up. He’s got you all tied up in knots. He probably did this whole thing just so you’d feel sorry for him.”

“He didn’t say anything.” Her voice could freeze the phone and my hand holding it. “He was crying.”

I snort. “Pretending?”

“No, Jon, not pretending! He said you kicked him, you kicked him when he was on the ground, and Keith…” She pauses, maybe waiting for me to fill in the details. When I don’t, she goes on. “I waited, Jon, I must have waited five minutes just for him to stop sobbing enough so he could talk. And when he did, he said he’s had it, he can’t take it anymore, can’t take the pain inside him, he shouldn’t have bothered with all the reading and looking things up–”

“That ‘off-switch?'”

“–he should have just cut his wrists. Your blood runs out and it’s over.”

“Sandee.” I’m shouting now; Dad’s going to come in and ask what’s up. Sandee and I don’t fight very often, and we’ve never done it over the phone. “Will you cut that out?”

Then I realize what I said, and I think of adding “No pun intended,” but decide I’d best keep my mouth shut.

“I gotta go, all right?” I hang up the phone.

Mark doesn’t return to school the next day.

As for me, I get a reception like when I stood up in Fourth Grade with the paper in my hand and trumpeted out my story. The guys that taunted me yesterday now pump my hand and slap me on the back.

Others seem to avoid me, looking at me a little too long as I pass in the hallways. Never mind. It’s over. Walford will come back, everything will go back to the way it was and it’ll be over.

Sandee calls me after dinner. “He won’t come to the phone,” she says right away.

“He won’t.” The TV news floats in from the living room; I don’t really notice. All sights and sounds seem filtered through a fog of anxiety that, much as I deny it, keeps turning itself up.

Fantasy or not, would he really do such a thing?

What if I pushed him over the edge?

That’s just what he wants you to think! He’s getting back at you! And it’s just the way he’d do it. Isn’t it?

“So,” I tell Sandee, “he’s still with us. His mom hasn’t walked into his room to find he’s overdosed on sleeping pills or anything–”


“You were talking this kind of talk yourself, girl.” So how does it feel to be the one hearing it, instead of creeping me out with it? Huh?

Next day, still no Mark. Keith, at lunch with me and Sandee, speculates aloud if he didn’t go ahead and rid the world of himself. I listen in silence.

Sandee says, “He’s just taking a few days off–”

“He’s recuperating,” I quip.

“Ha!” Keith snorts, and then thankfully clams up.

Sandee and I jump up at the same instant, just like always, and shove our empty trays at the dishwasher on the way out.

“He called me last night,” she says.

“He did.”

–Keith following us? I glance over my shoulder, but no need; Sandee made sure we were out of his hearing, or she wouldn’t have brought it up.

“You know what he said?” She keeps her eyes fixed ahead.


“He’s still searching for his off-switch. He’s giving it all his time now, day and night, he says. He tells his Mom he’s got a fever and can’t go to school, and she believes him.”

“He’ll get over it, Sandee. I guarantee he’ll be okay again by Monday.” Today is Friday, and I remember my show is on tonight.

We stop at her locker. She spins the combination and pops open her lock. “Don’t you get it, Jon?”

“Would you at least look at me?”

The side of her head, hair swept behind her ear, the graceful curve of her nose and high cheekbones, reminds me of that picture in her book: her brain, her optic nerves, all the delicate machinery of her cortexes right inside, and only a thin sheath of skull guarding it from the whole crazy world.

She faces me now, hugging her books. She always carries two books at a time, never more, never less. Or holding them up like a shield? I’m not sure. “He’s going to realize that much faster, there’s nothing to it. No such ‘switch.’ And what do you think he’ll do then? He’ll start thinking of the veins just waiting to be opened, or the breathing waiting to be stopped, or all the million poisons that could end the nightmare that you and Keith and everyone have made of his life. You say everything’s gonna be okay by Monday? Jon!” She’s practically shouting now. She’s magnifying, growing bigger like her dad, and I’m feeling smaller and smaller. In reality I stand three inches taller than Sandee, but now it’s like she’s towering over me. “He won’t even be alive anymore come Monday! Do you understand that?”

She walks off; I don’t dare try to follow.

She vanishes into the hallway crowd, and now I see Mark Walford, he’s growing bigger and bigger, his face frozen into the panic of the instant before I pushed him down and screamed at him. I walk toward him; he floats back away from me. I follow, not noticing the students I pass, until I come to the fire alarm Keith and I got him to pull one day. We were disappointed when Mark didn’t get caught like he was supposed to. Don’t know how he escaped that; there’s something on the handle that sticks to your fingers, and the school staff lines everyone up in the gym and makes us hold out our hands and shines this ultra-violet light on them, that exposes the culprit.

Then I jump. I’m not imagining it. It’s really him.

“Mark?” I call out.

The hallways are clearing, everyone’s due at Sixth Bell, but instead of going upstairs to Social Studies I follow Mark into his classroom.

Everyone sits down until only the two of us are standing. Now he notices me. His face tells all.

“Mark?” I don’t know what else to say.

He walks to the front of the room and faces the class.

Mr. Hopping, the oldest teacher in school and probably in the state, watches from his desk, blinking behind thick glasses. “Mr. Walford?”

Mark looks at nothing but me. I want to squirm.

“From now on, things will be different.” His voice is low and unwavering. “I’m going to call this the ‘Jon Way.'”

And he touches his left side, pressing in quickly and hard. He does the same with his right wrist and upper right leg. His face twists, he squeezes his eyes shut, he shudders and lets out a gasp. The class cries out. Blood trickles from Mark’s left ear, and then, all at once, it bursts out his mouth. The kid sitting nearest to him gets spattered. The girls scream. Mr. Hopping is on his feet, but Mark collapses. He lies in a heap, blood still dribbling, eyes open but no longer seeing.

Mr. Hopping bends over Mark. His face is white. “Call the nurse,” he says in a choked voice.

I stand and stare and can’t move.

Douglas Kolacki began writing while stationed with the Navy in Naples, Italy. Since then he has placed fiction in such publications as Weird Tales, Dreams & Visions, The Lorelei Signal and Aurora Wolf. He now haunts Providence, Rhode Island.

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