Posts Tagged ‘Dead’

Equation (Short Story Excerpt)

May 2, 2016

 

The great machine approached the dead planet with reverence, descending to the edge of its ionosphere. There it hovered with infinite patience. Searching. Recording temperatures, atmospheric conditions, radiation levels, and orbital speed. Scanning for any and all signs of life or sentience.

Just as it had been programmed to do.

In its current state, the machine appeared to be a long, trapezoidal bar; dark, metallic, and smooth. Light from the nearest star reflected off its surface, making it look aglow with energy. It waited until the planet completed one full rotation, then collated its data:

There had been life.

Once, but no more.

Noiseless, the machine began to mutate. Slats appeared along its massive length, and from its center both ends pushed outward…growing…curling…until its ends met and fused, forming a perfect circle with no end and no beginning.

Then it descended ever further, forming a ring around the dead, ring-less planet.

Again, the machine waited; every molecule vibrating from a constant stream of information. Inside its artificial imagination, the machine soared through the planet’s sky, burrowed into the crust, and immersed itself in bodies of liquid. Learning. Knowing. Understanding. It saw how the planet formed—nothing new to its memory function—and how life first appeared; also not new, but very rare. It saw how the microscopic plant and animal life became macroscopic, forming a symbiotic relationship between them. It saw great beasts rise up in a harsh, predatory world. Then, disaster. Gigantic mineral formations slamming down. Falling temperatures, crystallizing the liquid. It saw mass extinction, then rebirth. New life began. Smaller this time; less bestial but just as savage. A dominant species emerged; warm blooded, capable of thought and learning. Hence, this species evolved. In time, they began to build. They began to create. They began to change their world.

But always, their habit of enslaving and destroying each other remained.

A strange species, the machine decided. Capable of astounding visual and written works, yet capable of atrocious violence—against both themselves and the myriad species around them. Their technology focused on communication, but failed to overcome their natural divisions. Strange deities of their own design presided over them, influencing them. Even their growing knowledge of the universe didn’t help. Belief in what the machine understood as non-corporeal, non-quantifiable, and nonsensical ideas fueled this species, and somehow couldn’t be shed. In the end, they overpopulated and polluted themselves into extinction.

The cycle of this planet they in their various languages had called: Earth.

Now, having absorbed all it could, the machine had a question to answer:

Are they worth restoration?


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Thank you for reading!

JLR

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Blood & Stuffing (Short Story)

March 26, 2015

blood-stuffingFrom the journal of famed adventurer, Max Condor, circa 2015:

Have you ever looked into the eyes of a velveteen nightmare? Well, I have–and I assure you, it’s not pretty. The first time you’re cornered by a vicious, rabid Plushie, and you have to stare into its black, beady gaze, you know the true meaning of the word fear. And here on Teddy Bear Island, fear is woven into the very atmosphere. You breathe it like oxygen. You learn real fast to either embrace it and let it motivate you to survive, or it’ll clog your lungs like mothballs and force you underground.

Strength through fear, or death through unwillingness to adapt and survive. On Teddy Bear Island, that’s the only choice you get. Luckily for me, I made my choice a long time ago.

But…who are the Plushies? What are they? Where did they come from? How did they come to power? I guess nobody knows; nor does anyone know who built that accursed Teddy Bear Temple. For myself, I just know that I’ve lived in that evil Teddy Bear shadow my whole life. And from everything I’ve seen and experienced in this place, I can honestly say one thing for certain: the only good Plushie, is a dead Plushie. Because that’s the bottom line. We humans are now the hunted…so it’s us, or them…in a war to the death…

That’s how I’ve come to find myself hiding in this musty cave a few miles south of The Temple. No food, no water. A tight ball of fear in my stomach. Waiting for death, so I can join my comrades in the afterlife.

You see, I’m the only one left. One of three. Max Condor; brigand, scout, and expert with the longbow. Phoenix Kline; adept of the mystic arts. And Raven-In-The-Wood; warrior, and master of the sword. I’d known Phoenix since childhood. Raven I met one day while exploring. The three of us quickly formed a partnership; venturing out to wage a guerilla campaign against the Plushies. We’d figured at the time that three was the magic number. Too small to draw much attention, but enough to get ourselves out of any trouble we might stumble into. Three was perfect for splitting the overnight watches on our campouts, and each of us felt safer knowing he had two other professionals watching his back. Not to mention that our combined talents made us more resourceful than twice as many average explorers.

In short, we were the best. We made names for ourselves very quickly. Everyone knew us, far and wide, though very few actually knew our faces. We gave the others hope. Hope that the Plushies wouldn’t prey on humankind forever. Hope that one day all of the evil on Teddy Bear Island would be vanquished. And with every mission, with every success, the flame of humanity began to burn higher, and ever brighter.
But this time, something went wrong.

It began with the amulet. Early in his training, Phoenix had heard whisperings of the “Baal de Fuego,” a powerful amulet that gives its possessor ultimate control over fire. Phoenix, in his study of mystical lore, had specialized in the summoning of elements. Wind, lightning…and fire. Especially fire! Nothing scares the hell out of, or utterly ruins a Plushie quite like an open flame. Unfortunately, summoning elements is quite taxing and dangerous to those who wield those powers. But, supposedly, this Baal de Fuego grants its owner the power to summon, control, and intensify any fire with frightening ease. Only a trained spell caster can touch it without erupting into flame, and in the hands of an elemental sorcerer it could turn our war against the Plushies around.

I have to admit, I lusted after that amulet almost as much as Phoenix did. I love the smell of charred Plushie in the morning.

So, after many long hours of poring through ancient spell books, contemplating the riddles offered by his mentors, and studying maps, Phoenix–and subsequently, Raven and I–came to believe that the Baal de Fuego had been either lost or buried somewhere within the web of caverns in which I now hide. It didn’t take long for us to agree on the course of action which ultimately led to our destruction. But there was no way to know that at the time. All we knew was that the Baal de Fuego belonged in no wizard’s hands save Phoenix Kline’s, and we meant to find it!

Fortunately, the caverns we sought were but three days journey from Canary La; a small village we’d passed through many times before. The locals knew us, and our reputations could buy most anything we’d need at a fraction of the cost. So we made our way there, slowly, carefully, avoiding trouble and rationing our supplies. Once at Canary La, we rested for two days, stocked up, and finalized our plan.

The first day went smoothly. We left just before dawn, invigorated by the slight chill, and comfortable in the shadowy wilderness. Most of the creatures around us were asleep, or drifting in that direction. The trail was familiar and well-worn, and nothing arose to disturb us. As we walked, Phoenix kept watch straight ahead. Raven, bringing up the rear, watched behind us. I, of course, kept my gaze slightly elevated, scanning the trees for any Plushies crouching on the limbs. At midday, we stopped at a clearing and ate. When we finished, the sun had moved, and we found ourselves walking in the shadow of the Plushie Temple. And though we’d grown used to it, the deep shadow served as a constant reminder that walking death lay all around us.

That night, we all felt so good that we walked an hour past our agreed stopping point. We made camp in a small grove near several large trees. After dinner, we extinguished our fire and camouflaged our makeshift beds with leaves and sticks. Raven, spry as the devil, had taken first watch, followed by myself, then Phoenix. Each of us slept soundly in our allotted time, and awoke refreshed and ready.
I can’t speak for my fallen comrades, but I know that first night I dreamt of fire. A whole mountain of flames, cascading down like an avalanche and sweeping up every last Plushie in its scorching wake.

It was a good dream. Probably my last.

The second day, things changed. It had been warm and sunny, but a certain stillness settled around us. The woods were silent. No wind. No birds. No Plushies. We all felt uneasy, but ultimately chalked it up to good fortune. No obstacles meant we’d find the Baal de Fuego sooner.

A few hours in, the trail we were following…just…ended. Disappeared; as if no one had ever gone any further than that desolate spot in the forest. Here, we found ourselves at the base of a small hill. Nothing we hadn’t tackled before, though. So we dug in our heels and made our own trail. The ground became rocky about halfway up, dust swirled around our faces, and still…no signs of life anywhere.

We’d planned to stop and eat at the peak, but that quickly changed.

At the base of the hill lay a short field. Beyond the field was another dense wood, leading to our destination. We’d expected the hill. We’d expected the forest. What we hadn’t expected, was the carnage below…

Looking down, we saw a horrid sight. Truly horrid. It looked like a dumping ground for corpses. Not human, thankfully. But, perhaps more disgustingly, Koboldian. To me, Kobolds are nauseating creatures–even when alive. Short, mongrel-headed, bestial, and smelly. And now, I was facing a small field littered with their remains. Bodies piled upon bodies. Some of them headless, with large, ragged wounds adorning their necks; as if their entire skulls had been bitten off. Severed arms, legs, hands, and feet strewn about the blood-soaked earth. A massacre. A slaughter. And pervading this grisly tableau, a gigantic cloud of black, buzzing, flies.

“We stand at the threshold of hell!” Raven cried, recoiling from the sight.

“Steady!” Phoenix soothed, placing his hand upon Raven’s shoulder. “Once we’ve passed through this wicked place, and the Baal de Fuego rests in my palm, I shall set it all ablaze! We’ll watch the filth burn to ash and be scattered by the four winds!”

And I? Well, I simply stared in mute shock and fought to keep my gorge from rising. But then more unpleasantness arose. It brings to mind the Zen riddle about the tree falling and no one to hear it. Ascending that rocky hill, we’d heard no sound whatsoever. But standing there, gaping at the fly-speckled field, we heard a sudden roar of insect wings. It felt as if we had thousands of flies, mites, and bees buzzing inside our heads, and it struck us all with preternatural fear.

From stone silence to a whirlwind; as if the haunting sound only manifested once someone actually saw the grotesquerie on display.

Pondering that still makes me shudder.

I shall now spare you, dear reader, of the horrors–both visual and nasal–that we endured whilst trekking through that plain of rotting Kobolds. Suffice to say that we did this with great alacrity, hurrying with all the zeal of scared rabbits at the sound of thunder. And, disturbingly, once we’d slipped across the threshold into the dark forest beyond, the terrible buzzing faded from our ears as if it had never been. Out of sight, out of mind. No one to hear it any longer.

And from there, things only worsened. The wilderness we found ourselves in was dense with gnarled trees, sharp rocks, and a putrid, rotted smell. Like a dry swamp. And all about us, the sounds of a savage jungle. Skittering behind every bush. Fluttering in every tangle of branches. Snarls and growls echoing in the distance. The odd sound of heavy footsteps thumping into the earth.

“Merciful fate,” Raven whispered. “I have never felt so menaced as I do now.”

Silent, Phoenix and I nodded without looking at our friend. We’d heard the fear in Raven’s voice; neither of us cared to see it in his gaze.

What Raven had specifically referred to was the undeniable feeling of being watched. Something out there was stalking us. Something big and deadly. Tracking our every move. Perhaps more than one. Perhaps we’d been surrounded and just didn’t know it.

We were very near that wicked Temple, which only added to our unease.

Still, we pushed onward. Stealth no longer mattered, so we picked up the pace, marching single file toward our destiny. With every step, the ground became harder, the stench worsened, and The Temple’s shadow darkened. Time itself began to unravel. Night descended upon us like a tidal wave, and before we knew it, we were huddled around a fire, eating quietly and struggling to keep our fears in check.

That night was a mellow disaster. Nothing came alive or attacked us, but we were weakened, nonetheless. All of us slept fitfully, and our watches were plagued with incident. For Raven, it was an extended flurry of those heavy steps, as if several Plushies were hurrying toward us. It prompted him to rouse Phoenix and I, only to be embarrassed when we heard nothing save the night wind. For Phoenix, a dreadful moaning arose from the shadows, as if someone desperately needed help. Refusing to wake Raven and I, the sorcerer resolved to find the source of the anguish without aid, allowing himself to be drawn further and further away from camp…’til at last he realized his folly and rushed back. For me, I had to contend with the appearance of a large viper near the fire pit. How it slithered in unnoticed, I shall never know. As luck would have it, however, I caught the creature as it coiled near Raven. It bared its fangs and struck as I approached, but I dodged and beheaded it with my trusty dagger.

Thus, tired and aggravated, Phoenix, Raven, and I greeted the dawn with sighs of relief, packed our gear, and trudged on.

Unfortunately, nothing in the hellish forest had changed. In fact, it had worsened. The gnarled trees looked gnarlier. The sharp rocks were sharper. The putrid reek was the apotheosis of putrescence. Skittering, fluttering, snarls, growls, thumps in the distance; as if every living thing was agitated at our presence. And still, we saw nothing. Still, we felt watched.

How my flesh crawls just remembering it!

Ah, but the allure of Baal de Fuego drove us onward. Once found, we believed, the Plushies would fear our merry little band and we’d be the saviors of humanity. It was an honest, exalted dream, but ultimately doomed to fail. I just hope that within our failure others may find something of value to learn…

So. With our failure not quite realized and our dream intact, Phoenix, Raven, and I reached what seemed like a suitable clearing to stop, rest, and eat. Here, the terrain seemed less menacing, less…hostile. Yet we still felt ill-at-ease as we dropped our packs and settled down for a hearty meal of bread, nuts, dried beef, and water. Normally on our treks, we’d hunt for edible leaves and berries along the way. But there, in that terrible place, none of us dared.

And what happened next was my worst nightmare come to life.

No sooner than we’d fished out our provisions, there came a thunderous roar. All eyes snapped upward. All jaws dropped. A massive pink body hurtled toward us, followed by gray, then powder blue. A Plushie sneak attack. Bunnies. Floppy eared, buck toothed, and clawed. Huge. Enormous. The biggest damn Plushies any of us had ever seen. But the insidious thing was that they’d been stalking us from the trees. Some unholy charm had rendered them invisible, and only then, at the moment of attack, could they be seen.

“Hellfire!” Phoenix screamed, raising his arms.

A moment later, Pink landed, knocking Raven over with a sweep of its gigantic claw. Phoenix and I leapt to our feet as Gray and Blue thudded into the earth. Phoenix had no time to begin a spell, so he pulled his short sword and, in one deft maneuver, sliced Blue’s left floppy ear off and dove into a nearby bramble for cover. Blue howled in agony and stamped its ugly feet. Bow in hand, I notched an arrow and, with one eye on Raven, fell into retreat.

All would-be adventurers take note: Plushies are strong and vicious, but slow and dimwitted. So I, not being the most formidable warrior, rely on treachery. And as Gray lumbered toward me, I spun and sank an arrow into Pink’s back as it swiped in vain at Raven. Pink straightened, screamed, and Raven seized the opportunity, drawing his broadsword and leaving a large gash in Pink’s chest. Gray, meanwhile, rushed me as I notched another arrow. Raven’s face already showed signs of the heavy blow he’d taken, but otherwise my friend was in rare form, ducking Pink’s claws and dealing savage blows in return. I managed to sink an arrow in Gray’s belly and thumped his head with my bow, but paid for it when his claw swept my right leg out from under me. And Phoenix, as usual, had scurried off so that he could put his sorcery to good use. One-eared Blue, however, had turned its attention toward the battle between Pink and Raven.

It should here be noted that Plushies don’t die easily. One of my arrows to the chest would kill a man, but these giant, stuffed, monstrosities must be hacked and slashed several times over to stop them. It’s the main reason they’re so tough to fight. But I digress. The end is night; let me get these words onto the page before I lose my chance.

So there I was, at the feet of Gray. Snarling, drooling, bleeding, Gray was enraged, trying to decapitate me. I rolled; once, twice, and again, putting distance between myself and the damned bunny. It was enough. I notched another arrow, and this time I scored a direct hit to the face! Gray shrieked as scarlet teardrops tinged its fur. I then unleashed my dagger and rushed in for the kill, stabbing Gray’s soft belly again and again. Somewhere behind us, I heard Raven’s grunts of exertion and Pinks howls of misery. I knew Blue was also closing in, and though I’d often seen Raven defeat two Plushies at once, these two were enormous and no doubt able to sustain an incredible amount of damage. This I was finding out as I took another swipe from Gray. Angered, I responded by gouging its throat, and at last, Gray sank to its knees and collapsed.

Gasping for breath, I turned to see Raven in full melee with Blue. Pink’s ruined form lay behind Raven, limbless and lifeless. We’d all but won. I knew what was coming, but even so, I notched an arrow and sank it into Blue’s left flank. Blue stiffened, squealed, and was run through by Raven’s ruddy blade. Then, before Blue could even blink, he burst into flames. All thoughts of attack left Blue’s evil brain as it fell flailing to the ground. Smirking, Phoenix appeared from the forest depths, and the three of us surrounded the dying Plushie. Silent, solemn, we watched without pity as that bloodied, flaming, bunny died its slow, painful death. We could’ve hastened its end with a few quick slashes, but we didn’t.

Finally, when the flames died, we looked around, taking in the awful sights. Three dead Plushies littered the clearing, blood and stuffing all around. Grinning, we breathed a collective sigh of relief…but before we could even begin to understand what had happened, we heard a heavy thump quite near us.

“Oh, no!” I wailed. “What have we brought upon ourselves?”

What, indeed? Because there before us stood another blue rabbit. Gargantuan. Snarling. Claws flexed and ready to rend. And behind it, another Gray.

“Then the legends are true!” Phoenix replied to me. “But I never, ever would’ve believed–”

I don’t know how Phoenix meant to end that sentence. Before he could finish, a roar arose behind us. And there stood another Plushie, this one brown and just as angry as its brethren. Beside it stood an orange teddy bear, grinning that idiot grin which all teddies seem to have.

Thus, four more Plushies–with more on the way, I’m sure.

“RETREAT!” Raven yelled, already running from the horrible scene. “FALL BACK!”

“INTO THE FOREST!” I added, following Raven’s lead.

Phoenix, muttering an incantation, broke into a run beside us.

And there we went. Running blindly, foolishly, into the wilderness. Into The Temple’s malicious shadow. But also, toward the caves we’d originally sought. Flames leapt up around us as Phoenix unleashed his innate powers in a frenzy. Phoenix had poor control while in such a state, but I hoped as I ran that the flames would spread and burn the whole damned forest to the ground. Maybe even spread to that accursed Temple and burn the Plushie idol to ashes.

That’s the only thing which would make this doomed expedition worth the sacrifice.

Now, crouched in this cave as I am, starved, exhausted, and hopeless, my memory fails. All I recall from my dash through the trees–aside from the flames–is the odd streak of brown, blue, pink, orange, green, gray, and black in my peripheral vision. Roars, screams, and–oh, God–the sound of bones crunching in my wake. I ran and ran and ran until I fell and began to crawl. How I ended up in this cavern, I honestly can’t say for sure. I just know that I woke up in a pool of my own vomit; a symptom of my extreme exertion. I crawled to the mouth and found that night had fallen. A full moon has risen, granting me the light to at least write by. Luckily, my journal was still in the satchel I carry around my waist.

So here I am. For all I know, this cave belongs to one of those gigantic Plushies. It’ll lumber home soon, and tear me to pieces. I still have a slim chance of survival, I suppose, but that’s contingent upon me sleeping, healing, and ultimately finding food. At present, I’m too frightened to sleep, and too injured to even attempt to forage outside. I have no weapons. My heart is heavy for the loss of my dearest comrades, and the will to go on is waning by the second. I’ve even begun to doubt the validity of the legend surrounding the Baal de Fuego. Perhaps it was all a ruse by the Plushies to lure us into this blighted place…

Perhaps I’m losing my mind. Or have already lost it.

No matter. Before my body follows suit, I’ll again write the names of my fellowship. Phoenix Kline. Raven-In-The-Wood. Never let their sacrifice be forgotten. Never let their deeds go unrecorded. They fought the good fight ’til they could fight no more, and ’til their hearts failed to beat. Let their deaths be forever etched into the conscience of humanity, and may humanity never fall to the savagery of the Plushies.

As for me…well, who knows what terrors this night may hold?

Who, indeed…?

–March 26th, 2015


If you enjoyed this short story, please subscribe, like, and share.

“Blood & Stuffing” is original fiction based on the Escape From Teddy Bear Island Role-Playing Game, published by Orcs Unlimited Games.

Buy Escape From Teddy Bear Island here: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/121543/Escape-from-Teddy-Bear-Island

Thank you for reading!

JLR

Bobby’s Fight (Novella Excerpt)

August 21, 2014

bobbys-fightPrologue: The Twilley Restroom

1.

October 9th, 1992.

Hinckley, Oregon.

12:03 p.m.

Gotcha! Clint thought as he pushed through the restroom door. The husky ten-year-old had been awaiting this moment since he’d awoken that morning. Payback for what happened yesterday. His prey, a third-grader named Bobby Williams, stood at the center urinal, wearing a tee-shirt and jeans. Clint glowered at the thin, dark-haired boy. Following him here had been the easy part. Now, he had to finish it before anyone could stop him.

Just you and me, weirdo.

To his left, Clint saw a metal lunchbox on the counter. Bobby’s lunchbox; the one he loved and brought to school every day. Clint’s heavy gait echoed off the tile floor as he walked toward it.

“Hi, Clint.”

Mid-step, Clint froze.

How could he know it’s me?

“Why don’t you leave me alone today? You’ll just get us both in trouble again.”

Clint looker over, grit his teeth.

You’re lucky I slipped yesterday. You won’t be so lucky this time…

Sneering, Clint walked to the counter and seized the lunchbox in his grimy hands. The lid bore the logo of Bobby’s favorite movie, Void Hunter, and the face of Bobby’s idol, The Almighty Ve’yn. Most kids liked Void Hunter—an outer space epic—but few idolized Ve’yn, its main villain. Half man, half dragon, Almighty Ve’yn looked quite sinister. Scaly green hide. Cold obsidian eyes. Curved black horns. A ridge of dark green fins atop its skull and down its spine. A lipless, skeletal mouth.

Very demonic.

Not that Clint cared. He didn’t like Void Hunter or the character Ve’yn. Clint liked sports and hotrods and playing in the dirt; not reading all day like the creepy little kid zipping up his pants and turning toward him.

Let’s see how you like this, Bobby-wobby.

The angry fifth-grader stiffened. His blue Seattle Seahawks jersey reflected:

GAULT

00

in the mirror behind him.

2.

Clinton Otis Gault had always been a problem child. To Roger and Christina, his stable and affectionate parents, it seemed as if he came out of the womb contentious and dissatisfied, and his long, difficult birth foreshadowed the next ten years. At age two, Clint specialized in catastrophic temper tantrums. At age three he showed great skill in throwing his toys at whoever annoyed him. Roger and Christina knew they had a monster on their hands, but didn’t realize how big a monster until much later.

At age four, Clint found himself playing second fiddle to his newborn sister, Leslie. From the moment she arrived—in Clint’s mind, at least—Leslie became the undisputed star of the Gault family. Aunts, uncles, grandparents; everyone gathered around her, laughing and making gah-gah noises, which always made him furious. Leslie this and Leslie that, he’d think. But all she does is make splat!

Then Clint started grade school, and his disposition went from bad to diabolical.

3.

“How’s it goin’, dipwad? I found this by the sink. Ain’t it yours?”

Clint never forgot the moment Bobby turned to see him holding the lunchbox. The little weirdo had sounded so calm, so assured when he’d first walked in, but now—now Bobby looked frightened to tears.

“Yeah,” Bobby replied, his voice soft but firm. “Let me have it.”

Clint’s sneer became a menacing smirk. “Come and get it!”

Bobby blinked. Desperation shone in his eyes as he struggled to remain calm. Then, much to Clint’s sadistic delight, he stepped forward, reaching out with both hands—

Whoops!

Still smirking, Clint let the lunchbox slip from his grasp—

Clang!

The lunchbox unbuckled and sprawled open, spilling out a half-eaten sandwich. Bobby winced from the sudden clatter.

Whoops!

Teeth grit, Clint raised his size nine-and-a-half sneaker and stomped on the lid—

Thunk!

The thin metal—as well as Ve’yn’s demonic face—crumpled beneath Clint’s thick rubber sole.

Come on, dipwad! Let’s see what ya got!

Gaping at the spectacle, Bobby froze. His tender face slackened with disbelief. He shivered, almost weeping, and took a deep, shuddery breath.

Payback time!

Relishing the moment, Clint ground his heel with the cold intent to destroy that which Bobby loved. He did a good job, too. The lid squeaked and grated against the tile floor, and when he lifted his foot, Clint saw a deep, crescent-shaped dent in Ve’yn’s face.

Good! Now he’ll cry…

But Bobby didn’t cry. The frightened boy just stood there, trembling. Proud of himself, Clint stepped back. Then, pretending to be the star kicker for the Seahawks, the bully reared back—

Whoops!

and kicked the dented lunchbox with all his might—

Thwack!

The tin box skidded across the tile—

Eeeeee!

bounced off of Bobby’s right shoe—

Smack!

and came to rest by the toilet stalls. The clamor echoed for several moments—music to Clint’s freckled ears—then stillness returned, broken by the two boys’ soft, unsynchronized breaths.

4.

Children can be cruel. Sometimes, that cruelty spreads like a social disease. Husky and big-boned, Clint wouldn’t outgrow his baby fat until his late teens. So the teasing began in kindergarten. One little smartass branded him pudgy and the term stuck like a fresh coat of paint. Pudgy this and pudgy that, everyday, until the boy snapped.

But being husky and big-boned had advantages, Clint discovered—once he’d shoved a few kids around. And by age nine, Clint had earned an enviable reputation on the Twilley playground, much to his parents’ and teachers’ chagrin.

Then he met Bobby Williams, and everything changed.

5.

Fuckin’ weirdo…

Clint shook his head. Bobby stood there; the ache of seeing his prized possession lying stomped and ruined on the floor evident on his soft face. When would the little weirdo lose his temper and fight back—or at least try? How much more pathetic could he be? Watching him, Clint laughed, baring pizza-stained buck teeth.

“What’s the matter? Is wittle Bobby-wobby gonna cwy?

Bobby, pale to begin with, now looked very ill. He turned to Clint with an expression of utter devastation, beseeching him with wet, flickering eyes. Crying now. Hard. Struggling to speak, his voice became a soft gurgle. A whine. A whimper of defeat which fed Clint’s savage hunger.

“How about a black eye, Bobby-wobby?

Bobby gasped. Clint curled his grimy hands into grimy fists.

Too bad, dipwad!

Bobby flinched, stumbled backward:

AAAHHH!

Rage surged through Clint’s veins as he raised his right arm. His moment, at last! His moment to teach Bobby Williams a lesson! Remind the little weirdo that he ruled Twilley Elementary! That books and straight As and strange eyes meant very little in the big boy world of muscles and pain! And as he stepped forward to throw a wild haymaker, Clint growled like some vicious, feral animal, envisioning blood and bruises and broken teeth—

But the punch never landed, and Clint’s triumph turned to tragedy.

6.

Clint hadn’t liked Bobby from the moment he first saw him. The thin, reclusive boy had transferred from Dale Palmer Elementary; the ghetto school. His parents lived in Stark City, not Hinckley—which made them trash. The little creep just didn’t belong, and Clint—a shining example of the typical American bully—had vowed to make his life miserable.

It began with dirty looks. Whenever he passed Bobby in the halls or saw him at recess, Clint glared like a bull preparing to charge. Bobby just ignored him, spending more and more of his free time in the school library. Taking this as a challenge, Clint went out of his way to shoulder check Bobby here and there—accidentally-on-purpose, of course—just to see what kind of reaction he’d get. But Bobby always backed down. As one of the Big Kids, Clint’s natural bulk struck fear into the hearts of even the sixth grade boys, and he terrified Bobby. Which just encouraged the angry fifth-grader. Soon, Clint tried to corner Bobby every chance he got, hoping he’d get the nerve to fight.

And yesterday, he’d tried again.

7.

WHAT THE FUCK?

Pain, intense and sudden, caused Clint’s haymaker to arc downward. It felt as if a steel clamp had snapped around his throat, and he couldn’t breathe. Face red and bunched with agony, the bully lurched back, clutching his throat with both hands. Grappling with the invisible vise around his neck. Watching him, Bobby sighed.

HELP ME!

“I told you. I told you I didn’t wanna fight you.”

Clint heard Bobby’s voice, but the words held no meaning. Not then, anyway. Still struggling, he stumbled into the counter and fell to his knees—

Smack!

“I hope I never have to tell you again.”

Clint screamed in silent anguish as pain exploded in both kneecaps. Trembling, the bully collapsed, caught himself with one shaky arm. Help! he mouthed, eyes bulging. But the strange little boy just stood there, staring at him. Through him. As if he didn’t exist.

Like yesterday, a chill swept through him. But this time, Clint couldn’t deny the dark truth which lived inside Bobby Williams.

8.

Yesterday, while skulking about the Twilley Elementary playground, Clint saw Bobby by the fence, head down, hands in his pockets. A perfect opportunity, which Clint seized by sneaking up behind him. “Why don’t ya ever look at baseball cards with anybody?” he’d demanded after shoving the little weirdo down. “How come all ya wanna do is read those stupid books?” And Bobby, scared and crying, hadn’t been able to answer. He’d just lied there, refusing to fight. So Clint kicked him. Hard. Still, Bobby had refused to fight. And when Clint tried to kick him again, something odd happened. It had felt like being pushed; an invisible hand slamming into his chest. Then his legs had flown up and, for an instant, Clint hung in midair before crashing to the ground. Very embarrassing. And in the midst of scrambling to his feet, Clint had locked eyes with Bobby…and felt his blood run cold.

I slipped, that’s all, Clint later told himself. Slipped on the sand…

9.

OH, SHIT—HE’S GONNA KILL ME!

In a heartbeat, Clint’s life passed before his eyes. Not his entire life, of course, but the parts which seemed crucial to understanding the way it would end. He saw himself taunting and teasing the boy who now held his life in his hands. Staring him down. Calling him names. Shoving him. Being cruel for cruelty’s sake. Just because he’d felt like it. Because he didn’t like school or teachers or the other kids and needed someone—anyone—to abuse. And because Bobby seemed so different—not just to him, but to everybody. Nobody ever talked to him. Nobody ever sat with him at lunch. Something had to be wrong with him. Very wrong. And now, Clint understood that he’d been right about Bobby being weird and different, but wished with all his heart that he could take it all back. All the pain. All the bullying.

But he couldn’t; so now he would die.

PLEASE, BOBBY! I’M SORRY!

The room—or perhaps Clint’s brain—began to spin. Tiny sparks of light flashed and fluttered before his eyes. His trembling arm felt numb and ready to buckle. HELP! he wanted to shout. SOMEBODY FUCKING HELP ME!

Then, for some reason Clint never understood, Bobby said, “Almighty Ve’yn! What’re you doing…” And in the brief moment in which Bobby paused, the agony around Clint’s throat disappeared.

“…here?”

10.

After the altercation by the fence, Clint decided to work the system. Holding his scraped elbow, he’d ran to the yard duty teacher and told her that Bobby pushed him off the swing for no reason. But his plan backfired. Both of them wound up in after school detention. And after that humiliation, Clint endured a stern lecture from his father. He’d even had to apologize to Bobby and his bitch mother right there in the parking lot. Once home, his own mother had yelled at him, grounding him for the whole weekend. And worst of all, he’d been deprived of dessert. He’d watched in sullen resignation as Leslie ate his share of ice cream, and swore he’d get even the very next chance he got.

Today, of course.

11.

FINALLY!

A noise like the shriek of a rusted gate escaped Clint’s throat as he flopped onto his back, spasming as if electrocuted. His trachea felt bruised and swollen, his neck wrenched and stiff. Large black splotches clouded his vision; a grim reminder of how close he’d come to death. His skull ached, and he placed his hands over his face in a pitiful attempt to block out both pain and reality. I can breathe! he thought, thanking God and Bobby and—to be safe—The Almighty Ve’yn.

Just please don’t kill me…

Lost in agony, Clint didn’t see what happened next. Didn’t see the lunchbox rise and float over to Bobby’s outstretched hand. Didn’t see Bobby frown at the dent in Ve’yn’s face, sweep his hand across it, and make it disappear. He did, however, hear the resultant thunk! of the metal popping back into place. And as he laid there on the cold bathroom floor, he flinched. Like a frightened child.

“Thank you, Almighty Ve’yn!” Bobby said. Clint never understood that, either.

Please don’t kill me…

Tears now. Crying. Cowering. Everything the bully had once harassed and berated Bobby for doing. But Clint didn’t care. Afraid to move, he took shallow breaths and prayed that either Bobby would leave or someone would enter an end this nightmare. Even if it meant everyone finding out that Bobby had won, Clint prayed it would end. And his tears of fright became tears of joy when he heard footsteps moving toward the door.

Please don’t kill me…

Then the footsteps stopped, and Clint’s heart lurched inside his chest.

“I’ll tell you why I never look at baseball cards, Clint,” Bobby said, a slight echo behind his words. “Because I’d rather read than watch stupid games. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Clint shuddered at the sound of Bobby’s voice. Yesterday, he’d demanded to know why Bobby never looked at baseball cards, but now he didn’t care what Bobby did or didn’t do, as long as he didn’t go near him. As long as he didn’t have to look into those dark, wicked eyes.

Please! Don’t! Kill! Me!

“You’re dumb, Clint. And you made me hurt you. Remember that.”

I’m sorry, Bobby!

A moment passed. Silent terror filled Clint’s mind. Then the sound of footsteps again, followed by the opening and closing of the restroom door.

In the silence, Clint lay there all alone. Sobbing behind his grimy hands. Thankful to be alive. Terrified of even the thought of Bobby Williams. Not just beaten, but crushed.

Forever scarred by Bobby’s vengeance.

“I’m sorry,” Clint whispered, breath hitching as he rolled to his side. “Sorry…”

Sweaty and numb with dread—or shock, as Dr. Brix later explained—the felled bully struggled to his feet and lurched to the door. The teachers had all retreated to their classrooms and lounges while the kids frolicked outside for recess, so he faced a short, empty hallway, leading back to the cafeteria. Beyond the cafeteria lay the main hall, which led to the principal’s office. Which, for the first time in his young life, is where Clint wanted to go.

“Sorry, Bobby. Sorry…”

Thus, gasping, wiping his eyes, the disheveled fifth-grader bolted forward; away from the restroom; away from the library. And most of all, away from Bobby Williams.

Running as fast as he could on shaking, rubbery legs.


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JLR


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