Portland, Oregon, September 1983
“For the Lord’s sake, Timber! Will ye not at least get a haircut?”
He scowls up at his mother from beneath the lock of hair that always seems to be falling into his eyes. It annoys him, but he’s never going to let her know it.
“I dinna believe Jesus Christ gives a damn about the length of my hair,” he says, watching her cross from stove to sink.
She smacks him on the back of the head. If he were standing, she wouldn’t be able to reach so high. But he’s sitting at the kitchen table, so all she has to do is turn around. It’s no love tap, either; she’s put some real force behind it. Serves him right for opening his fool mouth.
“Timber Alasdair! Dinna take the Lord’s name in vain!”
“I didna…!” he begins, but his father lowers his teacup to interrupt.
“Dinna speak back to your mither, lad.”
The mild reproof smarts more than his mother’s blow. He leans back in his chair, balancing it on two legs, and brushes his hair out of his face.
“Sit up straight!” his mother barks. She hasn’t looked at him, but she knows his habits, especially the irritating ones. “Ye’ll fall over and break your heid. I dinna fancy mopping your blood off my clean floor.”
He’s heard it all before. It shouldn’t get to him, but it does. The chair’s two front legs thunk to the ground, and his arms fall to his sides, hands fisted. Spine ramrod stiff, he glares from his mother to his father, lips clamped on any further outburst. His mother gives a disapproving snort through her nose and sets about washing the supper dishes. His father simply looks at him, eyes calm as always. He’d give a great deal to get a rise out of his father. He’s heard, from his uncles, from his gran, that Malcolm MacDuff was a rounder in his youth. “As willing tae fight ye as look at ye,” Uncle James said once. “Aye, but your mam trained it out o’ him,” Uncle Duncan had added. “She’d not have had him, else.” He tries to imagine his mother then, a wee, pretty thing drawing pints at her father’s pub. The kind of woman a man would gladly change his ways to win. He cannot do it; it gives him a crawling sensation in his gut. She’s simply Mam, a small, plump woman who takes no nonsense from anyone, before whose wrath even the priests from Saint Stephen’s quail. There’s no picturing her any other way. But his father must have seen something more back then, back before he was born or even thought of. Now Malcolm never shows his temper at all, rarely raises his voice. It’s hard to believe he cares about anything, even his troublesome eldest son.
“We want ye tae do well, Timber,” he says now. “We ken it’s not been easy for ye here.”
Against his will, he snorts, the same sound his mother made not long ago. Hearing it, she goes rigid, a wave of cold energy spilling off her back. But his father clears his throat in a meaning way, so she contents herself with rattling the pots in the sink.
It’s just the three of them in the kitchen, the last evening of the summer holidays. He’s starting a new school tomorrow, the fourth in three years. Only two weeks ago his father tracked him down in Olympia, up in Washington, where he’d gone to ground at the end of June. He’s getting better at running. The first time, two years ago, he’d almost got himself killed. He’d been too young, he sees now. Young and weak, not wholly recovered from the illness that had nearly ended his life. He’d had no plan, no purpose but to keep moving, put as much distance between himself and the rest of the world as possible. He’d taken nothing but the bodhrán Uncle James gave him as something to keep him occupied in the month he was still bedridden. Callow and stupid. If not for the woman who’d picked him up after those drunks caught him, he wouldn’t have survived. She’d taken him back to her place, let him stay there while he healed. Then she’d given him bus fare home.
She’d given him a few other things, too. He hadn’t told her his age. Likely she’d not have believed it. He’d got his height early; the illness hadn’t kept him from growing in all kinds of ways. But it’s best he not think about that, alone in the kitchen with his parents.
“It’s a decent school,” his father goes on. “Not the best, but good enough.”
He hears words unspoken. “Not the best, but we did spend good money we could ill afford on better and look how it turned out. Decent and free will suit the likes of you.” He’s fairly sure his father doesn’t mean anything of the kind. But he can’t help hearing it anyway.
“I’ll try, Da,” he says. “I’ll try my best.” Except, he knows his best effort won’t come to anything. It’s not a bad attitude. It’s simply the truth. He doesn’t fit here. He doesn’t fit anywhere, and the more he tries to make himself over in the common mold, the worse he feels and the more he fails.
“That’s all anyone can do,” his father says.
His mother finishes up the dishes, pours herself a cup of tea, brings it to the table.
“I dinna want tae hear ye’ve been fighting this time,” she says. “I raised ye better than that.”
He stiffens. She has no idea why he fights. She’s never stopped yelling at him long enough to listen.
“Moira,” his father warns, and she turns to him.
“Well, I did! And I dinna understand why he finds it so difficult tae hold his temper!” She faces her son once more. “Ye were such a sweet boy, Timber. Sometimes I almost believe…”
She stops herself, hand flying to cover her mouth. He feels something dark and dangerous trying to surface inside him, called up by his mother’s accidental honesty. And he knows he shouldn’t pursue it, shouldn’t ask. Learning the secrets your parents hold in their hearts is a special kind of torture, even when you know your parents love you. Children aren’t meant to hear the disappointed hopes, the unrealized dreams. But he can’t help himself. Perhaps having the truth out in the open would be better. Perhaps then he wouldn’t feel so confined. Perhaps then he wouldn’t have to hide.
“Aye? What d’ye believe of me, then?” He casts his eyes down at the table, runs a finger over it. Pretends he doesn’t care.
She hesitates, then blurts,
“Sometimes I believe I lost ye when ye were ill. Sometimes I believe what Mitch Smith brought back isn’t my sweet boy.”
“Whist, Moira,” his father says, too late.
It’s worse than a slap. The force of her bitter candor knocks him back in his chair. The dark, dangerous thing inside him grips him by the throat, and he feels the blood building behind his eyes. Before he knows what he’s doing, he’s on his feet; his hand has closed on the chair’s slat back and he’s flung it against the wall.
“Timber. Settle down,” his father rumbles.
He whirls back on the table. Standing, he looms over both his parents.
“Ye heard her! She’d rather I’d died!”
“I didna mean…” his mother begins to protest, but the words she’s spoken hang in the air and she can’t call them back.
“Ye’ve nae idea, either of ye! Ye’ve nae idea what I’ve been through, what it was like!”
He knows some parents would make light of it, should their adolescent son claim to have been through anything at all. And he ought to feel grateful that neither of his parents belittle him, or laugh, or tell him he’s too young to know about life. But when his father speaks, he doesn’t feel grateful. He feels trapped. He feels like hitting something.
“Then tell us what it was like,” Malcolm says.
He breathes, nostrils flaring, holding himself down, holding himself back. His father has given him an opening. And for almost a whole minute, he considers taking it. But then he starts to remember the things he’s been keeping in the far corner of his mind ever since Mitch brought him back. The vision. Himself, older, perhaps as old as his father is now. The familiar terrain of Skye, where he’s longed to return. Except it’s ruined for him, now. For if he goes back, when he goes back…. He shakes his head, shattering the memory, pushing the crumpled pieces of it into the shadows where they belong. He’s no more ready to look at them now, at fourteen, than he was at eleven. Perhaps he’ll never be ready.
“Ye wouldna understand,” he says, and turns his back on his parents, and stalks out of the kitchen, his shadow treading on his heels like a familiar spirit. He goes into the next room, and the darkness swallows him.
* * *
Upstairs, he throws himself on his bed in the room he shares with his brother, Ash, and stares at the ceiling. There’s a crack in the plaster that looks like an eye; it stares back. Time passes; he doesn’t keep track of it. In a little while, or a long while, Ash comes in and, good boy that he is, starts laying out his clothes for school the next day. Grey trousers, white shirt, boy-sized navy tie; Ash goes to the Catholic school. He went there himself at first, lasted less than six months. He wasn’t kicked out for fighting that time; it was before the illness changed everything. But the nuns said he asked too many difficult questions and suggested he’d do better elsewhere. At least, that’s as much as his parents told him. But he’d seen the looks they’d shared over the report, when he’d brought it home.
Ash, though. Ash likes the Catholic school. He’s the good son, never in trouble, neat in his ways. Sometimes their mother jokes that someone must have switched the babies when Ash was born, because such a well-mannered boy could never be a MacDuff. And it hurts him, just a bit, like a splinter going under the skin. It’s another thing that chafes, makes him uncomfortable, reminds him how big he is and how difficult to contain. He’s a mastiff to Ash’s lapdog, all smelly hair and huge muddy paws on the clean floor.
His brother sits on the other bed and pulls out his school shoes, giving them a polish with his handkerchief. Ash had his eleventh birthday not long ago. Looking on with narrow eyes, he thinks, There’s never been another eleven-year-old boy who carried a handkerchief, not ever. Finished with the shoes, Ash goes over to the mirror above the dresser and spit combs his hair. He’s a fair boy, almost blond, with a spray of gilt freckles across his nose. Gran says Ash must have got his coloring from her own Da, because no one else in the family ever looked like that, “like an angel.”
He’s watching his brother, and thinking angels are stuck-up bastards who always do the right thing and believe they know better than anyone else about everything. And suddenly Ash’s finicky ways, his precise little movements, the gesture of his hand when he sets his comb back down on top of the dresser, make him want to throw the wee shite out the window.
“Aye,” he hears himself say. “Make yourself fine for the priests. They’ll all want to give it to ye up the arse.”
In the mirror, his brother’s face goes white. And he curses himself for a damned fool. He should have thought. Ash is a pretty child. Bad things happen to pretty boys in Catholic schools. No one talks about it, but everyone knows it.
He sits up. “Ash, I…” he says. “I didna… D’ye…?” He swallows. “D’ye want to tell me anything? Ye dinna have to go back there, ken. Not if…”
His brother whirls on him, small shoulders rigid, and his face is white not with fear, but with rage. His eyes, the same deep blue eyes they all have, blaze with righteous indignation.
“Shut up, Timber! I’ll tell Mam! You think you can say anything because you’re so big, but it’s still a sin to tell lies. Especially about priests.”
He blinks at the onslaught, too surprised to react. Although he’d never make light of his brother’s feelings, he almost wants to laugh. It’s like being attacked by a kitten, a tiny thing trying to make itself bigger. Except he could speak to a kitten. Disengage himself from its wee claws, smooth its ruffled fur. He has no idea what to say to Ash. At first he wonders if his brother even understood him. Then he thinks, No. Boys that age know what’s what; I did. They’re squeamish about it, they make crude jokes to cover the embarrassment. But they know.
Ash understood fine. It was he, himself, who made a mistake. Misinterpreted what he saw. Nothing bad has happened to Ash. Likely nothing bad ever will. Ash does well at his school, and his brother shoved his face into something he’d rather not think about. That’s all.
“Fine, ye wee pissant,” he grumbles, not without affection. “Dinna come to me with your troubles, if ye ken so much.”
Ash doesn’t hear the fondness, though. Or if he hears it, he refuses to accept it.
“You always ruin everything!” he shouts. “I wish Da had never brought you home!”
“I’ll be sure to remember that next time I leave,” he growls, stung. And for the first time, it hits him: He doesn’t have to stay. He could drag his pack out from under his bed, throw in a few things and walk out the door. Ash wouldn’t stop him. Ash would be glad. By the time anyone knew, he’d be on the highway with his thumb out. Perhaps he’d have picked up a ride, be miles away.
Ash pulls out a book of math puzzles, the kind he likes to do at odd times. After their conversation—altercation, really—he wonders that Ash wants to be in the same room. But his brother doesn’t have anywhere else to go, no place in the house to call his own. It doesn’t seem to bother him. He’s still small, still a boy. He still fits in. He produces a pencil from somewhere and settles onto his bed, content in the world of numbers.
He stares at the eye in the ceiling some more, thinking about leaving. After a time, their mother pokes her head in the door.
“Bed,” she orders. “School tomorrow.”
Her eyes pin him. He sighs and nods. He promised he’d try, and he wants very badly to keep his word.
* * *
In the morning, he walks to the new school. Though it’s in the next district and his mother had to talk up the board to get him a place, it’s not much more than a mile away. On his way, because his mother asked him and because he’s still trying to be good, he drops the twins at the Elementary a few blocks from home. Glencoe Elementary: the name brings a bitter laugh to his throat. He imagines men with swords hunting the children through the halls, the walls running with blood. But the twins are too young to appreciate the irony. They won’t be eight until December; they barely remember Scotland at all. It doesn’t bother them, that they’re about to start second grade in a place named for the site of a famous betrayal and massacre.
He drops them at the door, hands them the paper sack with their lunches. He asks if they want him to walk them to their new classroom. He’s not eager to do it; the teacher on bus duty is giving him the fisheye, wondering what a big, tough lad is doing with a pair of little girls. To his relief, the twins insist they’re quite grown up enough to find the classroom on their own and run off, hand in hand.
With his long legs and quick stride, it only takes him another ten minutes to reach the high school. When he gets there, he wishes he’d been slower. Wishes he’d arrived after everyone else had gone inside. It’s a fine September day, and the grounds are full of teenagers taking a last few minutes of freedom before the doors close on them for the winter. Standing across the street, he measures them with his eyes. It’s the typical lot. Girls in short skirts and tight sweaters, mincing about in an unnatural imitation of the women they might become someday. Blokes in athletic jerseys, flaunting their chest muscles, greeting each other with the bluff good will of television actors while glancing over their shoulders to see if the girls are watching. An androgynous group doing skateboard tricks on the steps. Some kids with artificially tattered clothes gathered around a boom box blaring something too loud to hear properly. Without even trying he can mark out which will be the predators in the coming year and which the prey. By the time he turns the collar of his denim jacket and crosses the street, it’s already begun. A big, blond bloke bumps against a shorter lad with an armload of books, using just enough force to make it clear the contact was no accident. The books scatter. Flustered, the short lad squats to gather them up.
“Hey, dickwad! Watch where you’re going,” the big bloke warns to the laughter of his mates, and casually flips the skirt of a passing girl with glasses. His mates whistle and howl.
The girl turns red, scurries off. By that time, he’s reached the scene. With a dark look at the bloke, he retrieves a book the short lad has missed, hands it over. The lad stutters thanks and backs away, unsure whether or not to be afraid. He locks eyes with the bloke, smelling antagonism. But it’s too soon to make enemies and besides, he promised he’d try his best.
The bell rings and the steps clear as kids run inside. He gives it a breath, then another, then brushes his stray hair out of his face and follows his shadow in the doors. They snick shut behind him with a sound like a coffin closing on a corpse.
* * *
The morning passes. He pays it no more than half a mind, enough to make the correct responses when necessary. The rest of his attention is split in two. A small part watches the other kids, maps the patterns in which they move. Most of them know each other. They’ve gone to grade school together, and to junior high. They live in the same neighborhoods. They’ve shared activities since childhood; they’ve hung out. In their microcosm of society, their identities are already established. Few of them will change, even when they’re grown.
At times like these he feels like a scientist studying an alien culture. It’s all right with him. He accepted his difference a long time ago, perhaps even before he fell ill. Being an outsider, being distant, doesn’t bother him. Besides, he’s big and attractive, and life has given him an aura that tells others it’s best not to mess with him. It’s an advantage most outsiders can’t claim.
What bothers him is the school itself. The physical reality of it. The desks that wrap the body like chains, making it impossible to stretch out or even move. The well-worn classrooms with their regimented designs. The smells of the floor wax and window cleaners the janitors have used to freshen things up for the new year, painting a thin, brittle layer over older, ingrained scents. Sweat and hormones; blood and tears and stale food smuggled into places where it doesn’t belong. It’s seeped into the walls, into the cracks in the floor, and no amount of cleanser can remove it. Sounds, too. They torment his ears: shouts and giggles, feet rushing between classes trying to beat the bell, the clang of locker doors. The whole of it grates on his senses, maddening, and that’s where most of his energy goes. Keeping himself from leaping up and flinging his desk across the room. Keeping himself from running out the door, into the air.
At the noon break, he makes a beeline for the grounds, leaving the books he’s accumulated over the course of the morning in a stack in the front hall. He’s been assigned a locker somewhere. He hasn’t visited it yet, can’t bear to. There’s a potted geranium in the hall, one of several that probably won’t last the winter. It’s not very bright, and he feels a bit bad about asking it to keep an eye on his things. He’s not quite sure it understands him. But he has to get out, and the books are a burden he doesn’t want to carry.
He strides across the grass, breathing in strength, shaking out muscles cramped by sitting too long in a too-confined space. He rolls his head on his neck, loosening tight shoulders and feeling them expand. He’s not sure where he’s headed until he spots a big oak at the edge of the sports field. It’s what he needs: the serenity of something old and wise, and larger than he is.
Under the oak he sits, stretching his legs out before him. He thinks he’ll take just a moment, pull himself together. Then he should perhaps find something to eat. He doesn’t pay much attention to hunger, but he knows an empty stomach doesn’t do him any favors. He’s got some money in his pocket. Up in Olympia he learned to shoot pool. He’s not very good at it, though he thinks he may be in time. But a couple of lucky shots won him a game or two. He hadn’t bet; he’d been smart enough not to. A couple of blokes in the hall had wagered on him, though, more for a joke than anything else. And when he’d won, they’d been jacked enough to share the take with him.
Anyway, perhaps he should find some food. He’s not sure where. He can’t stand the thought of going inside, spending his money on the kind of slop schools serve, spending his time in a reeking lunchroom. There must be other places kids go. But though he’s wandered the area—he’s wandered all over Portland in the last few years—he hasn’t paid attention and he doesn’t know them. Besides, going where the other kids go holds no appeal.
So he doesn’t move yet. He has his back to the oak, and the tree’s dreams mingle with his thoughts. They sink their roots deep into his mind, and leaves sprout. Through them, he knows the kiss of the breeze, the gentle touch of the waning sun. Sorrow in the awareness that summer is past, a kind of joy in anticipating winter’s sleep. It relaxes him. He has no idea at all how he communes with the trees, with green things in general. It’s always been so. He never thought to question it, and that in itself is a relief. There are few things in his life he accepts without question.
“Hey,” someone says.
He detaches his mind from the oak and squints up into a half-familiar face superimposed on the noon sun. After a minute he recognizes the short lad whose books got spilled on the steps that morning. Brave lad, he thinks, remembering the half-fearful glance the boy gave him. He’s decided to sound him out, make an overture. Figure out for certain whether he’s an ally or an enemy, and that takes guts.
“Thanks for picking up my book,” the lad says. “I would have missed that one, and I needed it first hour.”
He shrugs. “Anyone would have done the same.”
“No they wouldn’t.” The lad smiles too wisely. “Not with Blake Richards watching, anyway.”
Ah. That would be the blond bloke.
“You’re new, aren’t you?” the lad goes on. “I mean, I haven’t seen you before.”
“Aye. I’m new.”
The lad examines him for a moment. It gives him the uncomfortable sensation of being viewed under a microscope. Then the lad nods to himself, and plops down on the ground opposite him. He’s passed some kind of test, it seems. The notion makes him a bit sad, because he’s only been polite and it wearies him to think mere politeness should be an occasion for comment. A yardstick for measuring trust. He wonders if he should warn the lad about trusting too easily. Plenty of predators begin by being polite. But then, he figures the lad knows as much already. He’d have to.
“I’m Jay Sanford.” The lad sticks out his hand, a weird, formal gesture that reminds him a little of his brother, Ash. He can see Ash growing into this kind of odd, serious person, and he wonders if his brother will have trouble from it later. Probably not, he decides. Ash is still a MacDuff, and the MacDuffs know how to stick up for themselves.
“Timber MacDuff,” he says, taking the hand.
The lad—Jay—regards him from a pair of bright brown eyes, like those of a mouse. He’s rather mousy all over, with dusty brown hair and a pointed nose, as well as a kind of cuteness, the kind small things share. He thinks it likely Jay will grow into a good-looking man. He doubts the lad realizes it, though.
“You’re Irish, aren’t you?” Jay says.
The lad blushes at his mistake. “Sorry.”
He lifts a shoulder. “No mind. I’d not expect ye to tell a burr from a brogue.” It does bother him a bit, though. No one here speaks properly. The voices are too flat, like beer left to stand. It’s hard, sometimes, to understand what anyone is saying, really saying. Volume is the only measure of emotion, and it often lies.
Jay asks, “Have you been here long?”
“Five years and a bit.” A third of his lifetime. More, since Uncle Andrew emigrated and started sending letters back, describing his wonderful new life. American riches: they can still exert a pull on families across the Atlantic, especially the poorer ones. He remembers his parents talking after supper in the cottage on Skye, after his mother had put the younger ones to bed. He remembers the gradual shift from speaking Gaelic at home to speaking English. He’d thought nothing of it; he’d used one as well as the other then. Except, they’d once spoken his name in Gaelic. Fiodh, he’d been then. Wood cut but not yet shaped. A thing in the process of becoming. When they’d started using the English, he’d lost something. And no matter how many times he hears the new word, Timber, it’s something of a shock. He has to remind himself who’s being spoken of until the name solidifies around him and he recognizes himself.
He still dreams in the Gaelic most nights, and it seems he should be able to pick it up after he wakes. But it slides out of his brain and off his tongue, except for the times a bit slips out without his thinking. And except for language his mother won’t tolerate. Uncle James taught him a great many filthy words after his illness, to keep him amused.
One wet week last summer, up in Olympia, he’d spent days in a library to keep warm and dry. He’d read a book there that claimed a person is fully shaped at seven years old, identity and attitudes set past changing. He’s not sure if he agrees. Some things about him have changed since then, surely. But if it’s true, he’s Scots through and through.
His mind is wandering. He brings it back and notices the lad staring at him, waiting for him to say more. He hunts around in his brain for something he can share without complications.
“It’s my first high school, though,” he says after a moment.
The lad’s eyes widen. “You’re a freshman? Shit!” The expletive sounds unnatural; Jay isn’t used to swearing. “I thought you were a junior at least!”
“Because of my size, ye mean? I grew young.”
“Well, yeah, that too,” Jay says. “But mostly the way you act.”
His lip twitches, the way it does when he’s amused at something but expects it’s better not to laugh. Jay saw him for all of thirty seconds in the morning, hardly enough to have formed an opinion.
“How d’ye mean?”
“Oh, you know.”
“No, I dinna.”
The lad thinks a bit. “Old.”
He can’t help chuckling a bit at that. “Aye, I’m ancient, I am.”
“I mean, like all this high school crap doesn’t matter.” The lad’s words fall out all on top of each other, tinged with admiration. “Really doesn’t matter. Lots of people pretend it doesn’t, but they’re just putting on being bored and cool. I don’t think you are. I think you’ve seen a lot worse shit somewhere, and kid stuff doesn’t even touch you.”
His laughter dies. “That’s a great many words,” he says stiffly.
“Sorry,” the lad replies, coloring again. “I have a big fat mouth.”
The bell rings to announce the end of the hour. He realizes he hasn’t yet eaten, but he expects he’ll survive it. There’s not much left of the day, and he’s gone without food before. He gets up and heads inside, trying to recall what his next class is and where he should go. He hasn’t meant to be rude, leaving Jay alone. But the lad’s comment about what he might have seen troubles him; it cut too close to the bone. He wants to put it behind him.
The lad catches him up before he reaches the door anyway. He doesn’t seem offended, that a person has walked off and left him. He seems used to it, and that burns. Mam would give him a lick for treating another boy like an object, and it doesn’t make him love himself. Sometimes, he knows, he gets preoccupied. Things outside his narrow focus fall away, get lost. Uncle Andrew told him once it makes him seem like an arrogant prick and he should get over himself before some smart woman takes him down a peg or two. He’s not yet met a girl who cared enough to look beyond his face, though.
“Hey,” Jay says. “MacDuff.”
He halts, one foot on the steps. “Aye?”
“Watch out for Blake. He goes after freshmen who piss him off.”
He shows his teeth, smiling before he remembers he’s promised not to fight this time and his heart sinks a little. So he won’t start anything. But surely his parents wouldn’t expect him to stand by and take a bully’s shite? He thinks about it a moment and decides they would. Mam wouldn’t let him explain. Even Da took him aside when he got out of his sickbed near on a foot taller than he went in, and told him a large man must be more ready to turn the other cheek than most.
“Aye, well,” he sighs. “I expect I’ll meet that when it comes.”
They go in. He reclaims his books from the geranium, which has dropped yellow leaves all over the place in its excitement at being chosen for the task but otherwise has done a decent job. While he’s thanking it, Jay mutters something about chemistry and rushes off down the hall. He checks the schedule he shoved into his pocket first hour and discovers an unexpected blessing: he has a free period. He thinks about going back outside, but decides after a moment to rid himself of the excess books and goes off in search of his locker.
It’s on the second floor. He memorized the combination as soon as the homeroom teacher handed it to him; his fingers spin the dial without his having to pay them any mind. He’s good with locks, with getting into places, and out of them, too. He’s just got the door open and is beginning to shove the books inside when someone comes up behind him and slams the door shut.
He smells the brittle heat of unearned animosity and knows without looking that it’s the Blake chap come to have a go at him. Bad luck they should both have free time now. Worse luck that the bloke was up here and spotted him. But he supposes it might be best to get the initial confrontation over in a contained place, where nothing can go too far.
“Aye?” he says, not turning around. He opens the locker again, puts the books inside. “D’ye have something tae say?”
He hears the burr in his voice thicken. He’ll never lose it entirely; he spends too much time with his family and their broad accents have trained his ear. But the years in America have smoothed it somewhat, except for times like these, when he gets his back up. It’s a warning sign, as kids from his previous schools would have cause to know. The Blake chap won’t know it, though. Not yet.
“Saw you talking to your boyfriend,” the bloke remarks in a sneer.
It puzzles him at first. Then he remembers: he’s supposed to find the suggestion that he might be homosexual offensive. He’s never understood it. Even his Roman Catholic parents have gone against the Church’s strict teachings enough to say that how people love is nobody’s business. Uncle Duncan put it in cruder terms, but he meant the same. He expects it’s something to do with the way men are taught to treat women as things, which no self-respecting Scots woman would allow for two minutes. If a woman is a thing without power, he thinks, of course an insecure man would not like to be seen as womanly in any way. What of gay women, though? Are they supposed to be better or worse than gay men? More of a threat, perhaps, because they don’t worship the flesh between a man’s legs.
“Hey! Tall boy! Didn’t you hear me or are you just stupid? I’m talking to you!”
The indignant voice calls him back to the moment. This bloke does not like to be ignored; it makes him feel small. Pity he can’t simply keep on ignoring the bloke until he vanishes. But small things have a way of getting louder and louder until you can’t ignore them anymore.
He turns around slowly, takes a casual stance leaning on the locker, crosses his arms. The Blake chap is standing far too close; it would be easy to shoot a hand out to his neck and slam him into the wall. He thinks he could do it. They’re much of a size. Blake is a few inches shorter, but he’s heavier, especially through the shoulders. His own shoulders are broad, but still filling out.
For a moment he imagines breaking Blake’s nose. He hears the startled oath the bloke would make as the cartilage snapped. He sees the rush of blood.
But he’s promised not to fight.
“Aye, I heard ye well enough,” he says. “Did ye have a point tae make? Or are ye just pissing in the wind?”
Blake takes a step back, off balance. He’s not used to his targets being unafraid. Then the bloke gets back up in his face, so close he can see the bits of lunch stuck between his teeth. He could stand to lose a few teeth. Perhaps he’d not have such trouble keeping them clean, then.
“You don’t want to get on my wrong side, Tall Boy,” Blake whispers, and again he wonders what kind of insanity causes a person to want to turn someone’s physical characteristics into an insult, as if being tall were an affront to nature.
“Which side would that be?” he asks, raising an eyebrow. “The front or the back? If ye’ll be so good as tae tell me, I’ll do my best tae avoid it.” He should leave it there, but he can’t keep himself from adding, “Please tell me it’s the front side, because I’d rather look at a horse’s arse than your ugly face.”
The bloke cocks his fist back, and he makes his stomach muscles hard to take the blow he knows is about to land in his gut. But just then, someone coughs a warning. Blake’s stationed a couple of his mates at the end of the hall, keeping a lookout. The fist is lowered and Blake leans against the next locker down, hands in pockets, affecting nonchalance. A teacher comes around the corner, spots the two of them, frowns.
“Don’t you boys have someplace to be?” he asks.
Neither of them answers.
“Well, Mister Richards?” the teacher prods, and Blake mumbles something about physics lab and takes off. The teacher frowns again. “What about you? Mister…?”
“MacDuff,” he says. “I’ve a free hour.” Half of it wasted already, too.
“You can’t spend it hanging around the halls. Find someplace to go,” the teacher orders, and watches him down the hall and around the corner.
He finds the library, grabs a book at random, settles in with it in a chair where he can watch the door in case the Blake chap and his mates decide to come after him again. His blood is tingling with reaction and his clothes are all too tight. He struggles out of his jacket, feels the cool air from the ventilation system play across his arms. A couple of girls studying at a table nearby stare at him and fall to whispering. It’ll get around soon, that there’s a boy well worth looking at in the freshman class. He wishes he could take his shirt off, because the pressure of it on his skin is almost too much to bear. But that would, perhaps, be a bad idea.
He sits in the library until the next bell, when he finds his way to his History class. In the halls, the other kids get out of his path. He can feel their eyes on him, like knives. Somehow, in the scant twenty minutes since the scene at the lockers, they’ve all heard about it. Now they’re waiting, making secret wagers. Wondering, when it comes down to business between Richards and MacDuff, which of them will come out on top.
That’s the first day.
* * *
He walks away from school in the late afternoon. Late, because the football coach cornered him at the end of the day and it took a bit of work to convince the chap he has no interest in competitive team sports. He let the fellow rope him into watching a practice, in the hopes, he supposes, that some of the machismo of the high school athletes would wear off. In the end, he found it boring, a lot of posturing to little effect, although there were a few fine girls on the cheerleading squad.
As he walks, he does geometry problems in his head. He’ll write them down later; he didn’t want to bring the book home. There’s nothing in Biology, only some textbook reading about things he already knows from picking up injured creatures and nursing them back to health. And English is a Shakespeare play Mam read to him for a bedtime story before they left Skye, one of the bloody ones. Not his favorite. He’s fond of King Lear.
He gets home to an empty house, a rare event considering eight of them live there and the uncles and Gran are always coming to call. But it’s Wednesday. Da might still be at the shop; he had a commission for a table and chairs he needed to finish up. Mam will have gone to evening Mass and taken the younger ones along, to learn how to be quiet and pay attention in church. Ash will have wanted to go. Perhaps Birch as well; she’s due to start catechism class soon and currently fancies she might make a nun. Of course, she hasn’t quite got yet that nuns don’t have any business with boys. Or if she has, she doesn’t understand how it might apply. Birch believes the Pope should issue a Bull making an exception, just for her. She’s a spoiled thing, their father’s favorite, the eldest of the girls and so far the prettiest. At twelve and a half she believes herself a woman grown, and she has a secret stash of lipsticks in the room she shares with wee Spruce.
She’d make a very bad nun, and that’s a fact.
His stomach is rumbling. He’s had nothing since morning and the breakfast his mother fed him is long gone. He forages in the kitchen for something to fill the hole, finds a hunk of cheese and a couple leftover scones. The milk’s all gone and it’ll be the end of the week before there’s more, so he grabs a drink from the tap, sticking his head under the faucet and letting the water run into his mouth to save dealing with a glass. Then, one scone in his pocket and the second in his teeth, he goes out back to the shed where his father stores scrap wood. He noticed a chunk of curly maple in the last load he might like to make into something.
He finds the maple after some digging, along with some ends of oak and aspen he puts aside for another time. Wood in hand, he takes his familiar place under a crabapple at the back of the yard and pulls out his pocket knife, considering. Asking the maple block what it wants, what’s concealed within it. The shape of a bowl pops into his mind, and he frowns a bit. He’d need to use the lathe, and the lathe is at the shop, and he doesn’t want to go to the shop just now. For a time he waits, hoping the maple will give him something else to work with, something he can do with his knife. But it doesn’t. Sighing, he sets it down. He picks up a stick the crabapple has left on the ground nearby, and begins peeling the bark off.
He’s finished with the bark and has begun incising a pattern of spirals on the bare stick when he understands he’s no longer alone. Raising his head, he sees the old man standing a few feet away, watching him, wise black eyes fixed on the crabapple stick. He’s a Native man, stocky and barrel-chested, with a broad, flat face and a long braid of silver hair. They’ve known each other almost since the MacDuffs came to this country, and he’s the last person on Earth Timber wants to see just now.
“Salmon’s running,” Mitch says. He lifts a large, silver fish up by the gills to display it. It’s already been gutted. “I thought your mother would like one.”
For a moment he doesn’t answer. He isn’t sure how he feels about the old man these days. Years ago they’d lived next door to him, in a small apartment in a block of similar apartments. Then, he’d been in and out of Mitch’s place all the time. He’d made friends with everyone and everything as a child. In fact, it was through him that Mitch and his parents had come to know each other. And no doubt that’s the reason he’s still alive, for when he fell ill and the doctors had given up hope, Mam and Da had been willing to try anything, even a strange, old Indian’s weird ceremony.
He remembers wandering in blackness for a long while. From time to time, he’d see things, speak to shadowy others. A large tawny cat. A big black bird. Some human people, too, though he can’t recall them as well. There’d been a sequence of images like a movie, with himself in the starring role. Himself on Skye. A conflict, a sword. The sense of a task he needed to accomplish and his bitter unwillingness to see it through. Turning his back and running away into the dark.
Then he’d heard strange music reaching out to him. Chanting, the pulse of a drum. A cracked voice had spoken his name. A hand had found his hand. He’d opened his eyes to a dim room, the scent of unfamiliar smoke, and the old man’s weary smile. And he’d asked, Why? Why didn’t you let me go? But the old man had never answered.
Since then, though he knows he should feel grateful, he has not liked Mitch Smith as well as he did before. There’s an obligation between them which he doesn’t understand, and he resents it.
“Filberts are ripe, too,” Mitch says, shaking the paper sack in his other hand.
He still makes no reply. There’s a long few minutes of silence.
“That fish will need to be kept cold,” Mitch says.
At last he sighs and snaps his pocket knife shut. Gets up, shoves it into his pocket. Without a word, the two of them go into the house, into the kitchen, where he wraps the salmon in paper and stows it in the fridge. Mitch sits down at the table and starts cracking nuts, squeezing two or three at a time between his bare hands. He doesn’t look as though his hands should be strong enough to do it, but they are.
“You started school today,” the old man remarks.
He’s at the sink, rinsing fish scales off his hands. He expects it’s about time he said something. It’s clear, now, why Mitch has come: to talk about school, ask about his day. Mam or Da might have mentioned it, or he might have come on his own. Sometimes he does. And it’s rude to be sullen and sulky, but he’s very tired of adults right now, the way they tell him what to do and how to be without the least notion what goes on in his mind. In his life.
Except, that’s not fair. Because Da did ask, last night. And he walked out without saying anything.
Mitch cracks another nut. “And how was that?”
He shrugs. “All right.” He should make more of an effort, he knows. Be more polite. So he asks, “Can I get you something?”
“A beer would be nice.”
Drying his hands, he goes back to the fridge for a bottle of Da’s Scotch Ale. After a second’s hesitation, he snags another for himself. Mam doesn’t object to his drinking the odd beer, not since he got taller than she is, anyway. Though she doesn’t want him to develop a taste for whisky just yet. She saw too many hard-drinking men back at her father’s pub, she says, and too many of them started young.
He hands Mitch one of the bottles and sits down with his own. Cracks the top, drinks. Notices Mitch just sitting there with the bottle on the table before him. Looking at him.
“Would ye like a glass?” he asks.
“This is fine.” The old man twists the top off his bottle. “You can’t keep running, Timber,” he says.
He pauses, mouth full of ale. Rolls it over his tongue. Swallows, thinking, It’s a good thing I’d just taken a drink or I’d have said words better not spoken in this house.
“Did my parents ask ye tae come tell me that?” he asks.
“Would you listen better if they had?”
He thinks about it. At one time, perhaps, he could have said yes. Duty to blood, to the two people who made him, was not a thing he could question, once. Before. Before the illness and everything that happened while he was…elsewhere. Although he turns away from remembering much, he’s come to the conclusion, over the past few years, that he really was elsewhere, not just delirious, dreaming. What happened really did happen. It’s not something a good, Catholic boy should believe. After he’d been well enough to leave his bed, he’d tried to confess it. The priest had told him he had to put the experience behind him because it was a deception of the Evil One or some shite, and when he’d said, No, that’s not it, he’d been refused absolution. And that was the end of his being a good, Catholic boy. Because he’d decided that if he could be damned at eleven years old for something that happened to him, something he had no power over, for believing a thing he had to believe… Well. Fuck God and the saints, then.
He’d run for the first time a month later.
“What did ye do tae me?” he whispers, not sure he wants an answer.
“You were lost,” the old man says. “I found you.”
It’s close to a Bible verse, and it makes him very uncomfortable.
“Mam believes ye didna find me at all,” he blurts, the words escaping from his mouth before he can stop them. “She believes ye brought back something else.” Something wrong. He doesn’t say that part, but the old man nods as if he heard it anyway.
“No. It was you. I do not make that kind of mistake.”
If the statement is meant to be reassuring, it doesn’t work. Because if he is himself, the illness changed him in some fundamental way he does not want to contemplate.
“Sometimes,” Mitch says, “a long Journey is like passing through a fire. It burns away the shell of a person, so that only the meat remains.”
He cracks another nut and places it between his teeth.
“But when the things that have been inside come to the outside,” he goes on, with a small shake of his head. “That can be a painful process.”
His fingers contract on the ale bottle, and the cold from the glass seeps up his arm, into his chest. The talk of insides and outsides disturbs him. In a way, it makes sense. It would account for the flayed feeling he lives with, as if his skin has been ripped off and everything presses right against his naked flesh. But skin can grow back, and he knows, deep in his soul, that for him there is no going back to the lad he was before. So what Mitch says only irritates him.
“The way to live with it is to live with it,” says the old man. “You can’t run from it. The more you try to leave it behind, the more it will follow you.”
“If I’d wanted a homily, I’d have gang tae Mass,” he growls.
Mitch looks him in the eye. “Would you?”
There’s no point in answering. He won’t lie, and he doesn’t want to speak the truth, either: that his childhood faith has become small in his eyes. It makes him shudder inside, because who is he to question, to judge? If the priests are right, he’s on the short road to Hell. But he knows what he knows, and part of what he knows is that God is much bigger than the priests would make Him. The kind of easy faith men teach no longer has any sense in it. Sometimes, when he sees the hard road stretching before his feet, he wishes it did.
He chugs the rest of his beer.
“I’ll tell Mam ye were here,” he says, wanting the old man to go away.
“Timber,” Mitch begins, and there’s that shock of hearing, of having to consciously remind himself, That’s me. It pulls him out of his thoughts and into his body. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want to be in his body. He doesn’t want to be in this room. He doesn’t want to be here at all.
“What?” he snaps.
The old man sighs, as if he’s reconsidered what he had been going to say. He gets up, brushing dust from the nutshells off his hands on his jeans. Heads for the back door, pauses.
“You come see me sometime.”
Again, the old man sighs. Starts to speak and stops. Starts again.
“I can’t tell you things won’t be hard. But they don’t have to be as hard as you make them. Stars shine brightest when the night is darkest.”
“I canna see them,” he murmurs, but Mitch has already gone.
He sits in the kitchen while the sun goes down outside. After a while, he hears the front door, his sisters’ chatter, his mother telling them to do their schoolwork while she fixes supper. She comes in, doesn’t see him at the table. Opens the fridge and finds the salmon.
“Where did that come from?” she exclaims.
“Mitch brought it for ye,” he says, making her jump.
“Och, Timber, ye startled me. Well, that was a thoughtful thing tae do. I expect I should fix it right away, before it begins to stink. Shall I cook neeps or tatties? And there should be greens… Would ye like a salad?”
He doesn’t answer. She looks at him then, really looks. Something on his face wipes the smile off her lips.
“Timber? What is it, lad?”
“Nothing. I’m not so hungry, is all.”
For a minute it seems she’ll press him. But she doesn’t, only turns away with a worried frown. Perhaps she doesn’t really want to know.
He gets up, leaves the kitchen, goes upstairs. In his room, he lies on the bed trying not to think of anything. Sounds drift down the hall: the twins racing toy trucks, Birch and Ash squabbling over the dictionary, the squeal of tortured springs from wee Spruce jumping on her bed. His father comes home; he hears his parents greet each other. Their voices fade away into the kitchen. Likely they’re talking about him; he caught the note of concern before they got too far away for his ears to follow them. The house begins to smell of baking fish and potatoes boiling. His mother calls the twins down to set the table. It’s all so normal, all the ordinary cues of a large family on a typical evening, the same as they’ve been since he can remember. He can’t understand why they make his skin twitch and his muscles tense. Why they make him want to shout for some fucking silence and run down the road into the night, slamming the door behind him.
The clink of silver, the clatter of plates, the whistle of the kettle boiling. His mother summons the rest of the family to eat, and he can’t make himself move. The idea of sitting at the table with his parents and his siblings, trying to fork food into a mouth too vexed to taste anything, forcing his throat to swallow—it makes his gut heave. He hears a step on the stair; his mother’s come to look for him. She glances into the room where he’s lying in the dark, and he quickly shuts his eyes so they don’t catch the light from the hall. Turns his face to the wall and pretends to be asleep. For a time she stands in the doorway; he can feel her gaze on his back like a touch. But she doesn’t say anything, and soon the footsteps retreat once more.
In time, the pretense of sleep merges with the reality. He plunges into it as a refuge; for a while, at least, he doesn’t have to think or feel. Toward midnight he rouses to a dark house and the sound of his brother’s breathing. He gets up, goes to the window. The sky is overcast, low clouds reflecting a muted glow from the lights downtown. And though he stays at the window for most of an hour, he doesn’t manage to pick out any stars. Not one.
He drops his clothes and crawls back into his bed. His shadow leads him into dreams he will not recall come morning.
* * *
The next few weeks aren’t so bad. He gets into the routine. The physical reality of school continues to chafe, but he wears it in a bit, like a new pair of boots that fit too tight to begin with but gradually stretch to accommodate the toes. Never perfect, never actually comfortable, but all right to be getting on with. It helps that he doesn’t have to pay too much attention in class. He sits in the back, sometimes reading with a book under his desk, half an ear cocked to listen so he can give the proper response if called upon. Before long most of the teachers learn to leave him be unless no one else has the answer. Then they turn to him with a kind of desperation, and he’s glad enough to show that someone, at least, has a functioning brain.
He gets acquainted with a few of the other students. There’s Jay, of course. A handful of Jay’s mates, smarter boys who like to learn things, who do science projects and play D & D in their spare time. They find him exciting because he’s big and foreign, a game piece come to life. As well, he collects one or two from every social group: Stoners, Jocks, Artists, Straight-edge Punks; it doesn’t matter to him. They’re not friends, but he can exchange a few words with them between classes, eat with them the days he bothers with food. It’s enough to establish a presence among them. He gains a reputation for being approachable, “not a dick,” which suits him. He doesn’t ask for more.
There are girls, too, of course. There have always been girls. Even before he grew, girls liked to look at him. Now that he’s over six feet tall and his body has begun to fill out, they all but swarm around him. The adventurous ones find excuses to talk to him, to brush up against him in the halls. It’s a bit unsettling. He’s not exactly sure they understand what they seem to be inviting, how another might choose to interpret their actions. Or perhaps they do.
Some of the older ones do. He gets a few direct invitations from the juniors and seniors. More often than not, he turns them aside. The girls don’t seem to mind too much, as long as he’s polite. They put his lack of interest down to his youth and tell him to look them up when he changes his mind. Once or twice, though, he indulges in a round of necking and petting. It’s a pleasure, and his life holds little enough unadulterated pleasure. It’s a distraction, a relief. He doesn’t make any claims or promises, and he never makes the first move.
In truth, girls his own age don’t appeal to him much. It’s true he likes them. He gets a hard-on ten times a day from looking at them, let alone imagining more. And of course he’d enjoy going further than necking. But girls his age are too new to womanhood to know their bodies well, even the ones he can tell aren’t virgins. They can’t say what they like without blushing, and the business gets awkward and a bit furtive. He’s more experienced than he probably should be at fourteen, but he’s still learning about himself. Another novice isn’t likely to be able to teach what he needs to know, and a sweaty grope under the bleachers doesn’t truly satisfy anyone. Having a steady girlfriend might be a solution, but he’s not eager to be tied to another person that way. If he needs a release badly enough to trouble him, he can take care of it himself.
As for the Blake chap, they stay out of each other’s way. It’s not such a large school that they can avoid each other altogether. They pass each other in the halls. Sometimes Blake bumps his shoulder, his arm. They glare at each other from opposite ends of the grounds, eyes finding eyes as if a magnetic force binds them. He walks into a place where Blake and his mates are and hears a voice raised in a comment designed to catch his attention; he drawls an equally loud response to whomever he happens to be with. It’s not over between them, only deferred. As far as he’s concerned, it can stay deferred forever. Here also, he has no intention of making the first move.
The third Saturday after school starts, he’s thinking about going for a hike in Forest Park. It’s been far too long since he got out into the wild places. He’s been keeping things on an even keel, but he can still feel the pressure building. A day in nature, with trees about him and, above all, without so many people can take the edge off, but if he leaves it much longer it will be too late to do him good. Forest Park might be only a mile wide, but it stretches a fair distance, and though it’s a popular spot he knows the corners where people don’t go.
He’s in the kitchen hunting in the fridge for some portable food to take along when his mother comes down still in her dressing gown. It’s early yet. He’s always been an early riser, and lately he’s taken to working out in the yard before anyone else is up. Doing sit-ups and push-ups. Chinning himself on an overhanging beam in the garage. Pressing stones he’s liberated from his mother’s rock garden. Going for a run sometimes. That sort of thing. He doesn’t want to grow into one of those badly-proportioned men one sees, tall men with nothing between their bones and their skins. And he doesn’t want Birch to give him shit about it, which she would if he did it when she was awake to see.
Anyway, his mother comes down.
“Och, Timber. Good,” she says. “I need ye tae look after Spruce for the morning. The twins have dance class, and I mean tae take them shopping after. They’ve grown out of their shoes again, and Hawthorne ruined her best school dress climbing the crab tree.”
“Why can’t Birch do it?” he asks, face still in the fridge. “I was about tae go out.”
“Birch is coming with us. She needs…girl things.”
He translates in his head: bras, panties, sanitary supplies. Things fourteen-year-old boys are supposed to find it difficult to mention without embarrassment. Though it isn’t necessary to spare his sensibilities, he feels a surge of fondness toward his mother for trying.
He doesn’t much want to look after his sister, though. He loves her, of course. He just needs to be on his own, without a five-year-old demon in tow.
He crosses his arms on the top of the open fridge door. “I dinna suppose you’d want me tae take her hiking with me,” he suggests, without much hope.
His mother’s eyebrows shoot up. “Intae the woods? Shut the fridge this instant, Timber! We dinna run it tae cool the whole house.”
“It’s where one generally goes hiking.” After a last glance into the fridge, he closes it. There was nothing inside he wanted anyway.
“Nooo, I dinna think so. I ken ye can take care of yourself, and like as not ye can take care of Spruce, too. But I dinna believe the pair of ye would get much enjoyment out of the experience.”
True enough. “Can I take her somewhere, though? It’s a fine day. I dinna want tae be tied tae the house.”
“We’ll be back by noon.”
He snorts. “No ye wilna. Hawthorne will want the first dress she sees, but ye’ll go all over town looking for it at a better price. Then ye’ll go back and buy the one she wanted anyway. And if Birch is with ye…”
“Och, fine.” His mother waves a hand to silence him before he can go into the details of his oldest sister’s shopping habits. “Take Spruce tae the Saturday Market, then. She likes the toy vendor.”
“She’ll want something.”
“Buy her a sweetie. I’ll give ye some money.”
It’s as good a bargain as he’s likely to get. The market is always crowded, but he can take his bodhrán and busk a bit. Playing music will do him almost as much good as going to the woods. Spruce won’t be a problem. She likes the drum, and she knows to mind him.
“Aye, all right.”
She goes into the next room for her purse. He feels bad taking the bills she hands him. He still has some of the money from his Olympia pool win, and he can make a fair amount with his songs. Good looks mean good tips; he learned that right away. But when he tries to protest, his mother shoos him off.
“Take it. And I’ll come collect Spruce by one.”
“See that ye do.”
She reaches up to ruffle his hair. She can just manage it without his having to bend down.
“You’re a good lad, Timber.”
“Aye, I try.”
She goes back upstairs to roust Ash and the girls out of bed. Da’s already gone; he went off fishing with the uncles before sunrise. He’d asked if Timber wanted to come, and for a moment he’d considered it. But he knows how those trips go, with a great deal of beer and the whisky flask passed around, and long-winded tales of times back on Skye before he was born. Perhaps there will be a trout or two at the end of it, and perhaps not. Anyway, he’d decided he was in no frame of mind to appreciate the experience.
He retreats out the back door; it would be a bit much, he thinks, to endure the mayhem that ensues when everyone crowds into the kitchen for breakfast. After a while, when things have settled down, he sneaks back in at the front door and upstairs to pack up the drum and some tippers. When he comes down, bodhrán case over his shoulder, a Greek fisherman’s cap on his head he only wears for busking because it makes a convenient place for passers-by to toss loose change, Ash has already taken off on his bicycle to work on a science project with a mate, his mother is chivvying the older girls toward the front door, and Spruce is gearing up to a tantrum at being left behind. When she sees him, she breaks it off mid-yell and flings herself at him, chanting his name over and over again.
“Timber! Timber! Timber!”
Like the last line of a spell summoning a devil, he thinks, but without the fire and smoke. From wee Spruce it’s all right, though. He growls at her, making a fierce face. She squeals, runs around behind him, and starts trying to climb up his leg. He plucks her off by the collar of her shirt and swings her up in the air until she screams. Their mother, red in the face, orders them to stop roughhousing indoors, but he knows she’s pleased they get along so well. She offers them a ride downtown with the girls. The old Chevy is big enough to hold them all. Spruce pouts and demands to ride on the bus. It’s just as well; the Saturday Market doesn’t open for another hour. They go out and walk down to the stop. He lets his sister carry the bodhrán and makes his stride short so she can keep up.
Even having to wait to transfer to another bus that will take them across the river, they get to the marketplace while the vendors are still setting up. He finds them a spot near the fountain and pulls out his drum to warm up and to keep Spruce amused. Right away she begs for the song about the frog’s wedding. It’s not easy being entertaining with only his voice and the bodhrán, though the first never troubled him the way it does some teenaged boys and he’s becoming rather good at the second. He’s worked out a way to stretch the drumhead to mimic a bullfrog croaking, which Spruce loves. She’d have him play that song a hundred times in a row, if he would. He gives her an encore, but then people have begun to show up so he sets his hat out and moves on to a different part of his repertoire. He knows a great many pub songs, many of them bawdy. His mother wouldn’t like to hear him sing that sort of thing in front of Spruce, but she’s not here and his sister isn’t yet old enough to ask difficult questions about the things she doesn’t understand. She skips and dances about while he reels off “The Jolly Beggar” and “The Ramblin’ Siuler” and “The Bonny Black Hare.” It attracts a good deal of attention. His hat begins to fill up, and he thinks, I’ll have to bring Spruce along more often; the marks think she’s cute.
He rounds off his set with “The Greenfields of America.” It’s an immigration ballad, Irish, but he understands the sentiment all too well. No drum on that one, just his voice. He didn’t have much of one as a child. Not like Ash, whose pure soprano gets him solos in the Saint Stephen’s choir. It settled into a passable baritone, though. Perhaps more than passable. He sees a few old folks, possibly immigrants themselves, with tears in their eyes. And a curvaceous brunette in her twenties flashes him a suggestive smile as she drops a twenty into his cap. She leaves a slip of paper with her phone number, too.
Then it’s time for a break, so he takes Spruce on a round of the vendors. She falls in love with a stuffed gargoyle at one of the toy stalls; he has to distract her by buying her a cheap ribbon wreath and taking her to get her face painted like a tiger. They stop for a funnel cake, and Spruce gets powdered sugar all over her face. Cleaning her up smudges her paint, and nothing will do but that he take her back to the artist to have it fixed. Then she crashes from the sugar and starts to cry, so he carries her back to the fountain. He sits on the edge of the basin; she curls up under his bent knees with his jacket for a blanket and the bodhrán case for a pillow. He plays “Are Ye Sleeping Maggie?” and “The Birkin Tree” and “The Skye Boat Song” until she falls asleep. She’s a sound sleeper; once she’s under, nothing can wake her until she’s good and ready to wake. So he gets ready to roll out something more energetic. But he’s barely drawn breath to begin “Donald Where’s Your Trousers?” when someone yells,
“Don’t you know anything that’s not crap?”
It’s the Blake chap. It would be. The first time in weeks he’s been able to forget everything and simply enjoy himself, enjoy being with his sister, and the bigealais has to come along and stick his fucking nose into it.
“Sugh mo bhod, a’thoine,” he mutters, resting the drum on his knees and leaning his arms on the rim.
The bloke spies Spruce lying in his shadow with her thumb in her mouth.
“Babysitting, MacDuff?” He takes a step closer. “I knew you were a faggot.”
“I dinna believe my willingness tae look after my sister has anything tae do with my sexual preferences,” he says. “Though I expect your readiness to judge me says something about yours.”
The bloke’s face goes blank. He can’t figure out what’s been said, whether or not he’s been insulted. After a minute, he decides to take offense on general principle and turns red. He takes another step closer and leans over the drum, his breath rank and hot.
“You think you’re really smart, don’t you?”
“Aye. I do.”
“Aye, I do,” Blake sniggers, his voice high and full of scorn. “Can’t you even learn to speak, moron?”
There’s a number of responses he could make. But the bloke doesn’t want an answer, not really, and giving him one would be an exercise in futility. Trying to remain calm and rational is getting difficult. Still, he doesn’t want to come right out and antagonize the chap.
“Ith mhi,” he says.
Despite not understanding the language, Blake gets that he’s been given a challenge.
“I warned you not to get on my bad side.”
“Aye, and I told ye tae keep your ugly face out of my sight.”
“You need a lesson in respect.”
He lifts an eyebrow. “D’ye believe you’re the one tae give it tae me?”
The bloke glances around. He’s smart enough to know he can’t start anything here at the market, with people all around and the police within call.
“Come over to the I-5 bridge if you want to find out. If you’re not all talk.”
His heart sinks. He has no doubt that he can use Blake to wipe the pavement, but he had hoped it wouldn’t come to this. Some people just won’t leave well enough alone. He decides to give it one last try.
“I dinna want tae fight ye.”
“Then you’re a coward as well as a faggot,” Blake sneers.
The insult rolls off of him without leaving a mark. He doesn’t care what the fool thinks. He doesn’t even care if Blake takes it into his head to spread the tale around school, which he certainly will, making his own part seem a great deal more heroic, no doubt. But he’s sick of the conflict, sick of the bad blood, sick of waiting for Blake and his mates to make a move. This is the move. And if you give way to a bully, he’ll never let you hear the end of it, and nothing you love will ever be safe. He needs to put an end to it.
“Aye, fine,” he says. “I’ll be there. Give me an hour.”
“Start praying, Tall Boy,” Blake replies, and walks away with a smirk on his face.
He spins his tipper between his fingers, gives a roll to the drum and begins belting out “Donald MacGillavry,” the song he hates, the one he only plays when something bad is happening. He expects praying might be a good idea, if he could think of a god who would listen. Not because he has any fear for himself. But because it’ll likely take some kind of divine intervention, to keep him from killing the bastard.
* * *
Mam doesn’t find him until a quarter after two. He spots her and the girls on the edge of the crowd in the middle of “The Widow and the Devil.” His mother gives him a disapproving glare at hearing the lyric story, but she doesn’t jump forward and snatch the drum from his hands. So he finishes up with a flourish and tells his audience he’s done for the day. As he’s transferring his take from his hat to his pockets, his mother comes up to him, the twins dragging on her hands and begging to take a turn through the fair. Birch hangs back. She can’t decide whether it would be cool to know him because he’s a popular musician or if she should ignore him because he’s her brother.
“Ye dinna have tae stop on our account,” his mother says. “Hazel, Hawthorne, stop that! Ye’ve already had a treat. Ye can see the fair another time; it’s here every Saturday.”
“I’ve a thing I need tae do,” he replies. Part of him hoped she’d forget to come, so he’d have a good excuse not to run off to the I-5 overpass. Now that she’s here, though, he just wants to get the business over with.
Spruce is awake, but groggy. To help his mother out, he carries her to the car, parked in a lot over on First Avenue behind the Irish pub. Because he doesn’t want to be burdened with it and doesn’t want it to become a target or an impromptu weapon, he entrusts the twins with his drum. His mother and the girls pile into the car, and he watches them drive away. Then he hightails it back to the waterfront and sets off down the bike trail, moving at a steady jog. It takes him all the way to the overpass. When he reaches it five minutes later, he finds Blake waiting for him.
Three of Blake’s mates are waiting for him, too. He should have expected that.
“Thought you weren’t coming,” Blake says.
It’s idle chat. If Blake had really believed he wouldn’t show, he’d not have stuck around. That would have been better for everyone.
“I’m here. Let’s do this, aye?”
They move away from the river, back under the shadow of the twelve soaring lanes where highway 405 merges with I-5. It’s a dim place set between the Residence Inn and a parking lot, with ragged shrubs growing from the waste ground along its edges. The cracked cement between the pylons supporting the overpass is littered with crumpled beer cans, old newspapers, used condoms, a bent hypodermic needle. The air hums from the waves of traffic passing overhead. It’s no different from any such place; he’s seen enough of them to know. A few times when he’s been on the run, he’s slept in spots very much like it.
Blake’s three mates fan out. He doesn’t think they mean to keep watch. No one’s likely to interrupt. They want to be ready to grab him if he makes a break for it or to lend a hand if Blake seems to be getting the worst of the fight. Neither possibility bothers him. Even if he had any intention of running, which he doesn’t, he expects he could outdistance them. After he takes Blake down, they’ll like as not be too shocked and afraid to give him much trouble. If they decide to jump him all at once while he’s distracted it might be a problem, though. He decides to keep half an eye on them, if he can.
Blake sticks out his chest and brings his fists up.
“Come and get it, Tall Boy!”
The posturing almost makes him laugh. It’s all too obvious the chap has never been in a real fight before, and for a moment he actually feels a bit sorry for him. Then he steps in close and, ignoring the fist that flails at his head, shoves the heel of his hand into Blake’s mouth. Something goes crunch, and Blake leaps back shrieking like a scalded cat.
“You fuck! You broke my tooth!”
“Mind ye dinna choke on the pieces.”
The bloke rushes him, head down like a charging bull. He steps aside, sticking his leg out. Blake trips, sprawls onto his face. Gets back up spitting out gravel, livid.
“I’m gonna get you, cocksucker!”
He thinks about making some smart reply, decides against it. This isn’t a movie; no snappy dialogue is necessary. Although he was all but certain it wouldn’t go that way, he had hoped Blake would turn out to be quick on the uptake and realize the eventual outcome of their conflict without it getting too ugly. But the bloke is used to being a big man, to being intimidating. He’s too used to winning without having to try. He can’t back down; it’s a matter of ego.
Which means he’ll have to do Blake a bit of real damage before this can end. So when the bloke charges him again, he lets him land a punch or two, to give him confidence, and reach an arm around his shoulders in the beginning of a headlock. He’s no intention of going along with that, though. His left hand closes on the back of Blake’s neck, holding him in place. His right fist comes up in a sharp jab under Blake’s ribs. When the bloke grunts, losing his air, he lets him go long enough to get a few inches between them, then grabs him by the shoulders and bashes his forehead into Blake’s face. Blake staggers back a pace, recovers, lunges forward swinging. He takes a blow to his own ribs that will leave a nasty bruise before he can get a grip on the fellow again and knee him in the balls. Blake makes a high-pitched, wheezing sound and sags. He drags him around into a real headlock under his left arm and punches him in the jaw once more for good measure.
“Are ye done, ye shite?”
Blake mumbles something. He tightens his arm around the bloke’s neck.
“I didna hear ye.”
“I said, I’m done,” Blake gasps.
He releases the headlock, shoves Blake away. Blake goes down on his ass. He takes a step forward, looms over his fallen foe, hands still clenched into fists, ready in case the bloke makes a move; he doesn’t trust Blake’s word. He’d like to give the fellow a kick, to make sure he minds. But he restrains himself, and simply stares him down. Blake stares back, eyes full of hate.
“Dinna bother me nae mair,” he says, and turns his back on Blake and stalks away toward the river and the bike trail that will take him away from this place. Blake’s mates part ranks and let him pass.
* * *
Monday morning Blake is sporting a swollen jaw and a magnificent black eye. He boasts to anyone who will listen: “You should see the other guy!”
The “other guy” has sore ribs and some split skin across the knuckles of his right hand. Nothing to trouble him overmuch. He goes about his business and tries to ignore Blake and his cronies. They’re giving him a wide berth, but he has a feeling something else is brewing. He should have known trouncing Blake wouldn’t solve anything. Now the bloke’s taken his bile underground; it’s running thick and black, like a hidden vein of oil. Sooner or later it will erupt, poisoning anyone who happens to be standing too close. But what was he to do? He couldn’t ignore the chap. He would have been happy to, happy to bear the jibes and half-assed attempts to get a rise out of him. Blake wouldn’t allow it, though. If he’d declined to engage, the situation would just have escalated until he had to take a stand anyway. He’s seen that kind of thing before, on the streets.
He’s seen too much on the streets. Five times in two years he’s run. Never as far as the first time. But he can’t make himself stop. He keeps thinking, if only I can get far enough away… Then what? He’s not certain. It’s no life for a lad of fourteen; it makes him older every time. Even Jay saw it, the first day. I should stop, he thinks. I really should. Except, if he stops, his shadow will catch up with him.
Anyway, he had no choice but to deal with Blake. Perhaps, if the gods exist, one of them will take pity on him and prevent anything else from going down.
That same day, a rumor starts to go around about one of the girls he’s spent time with, a fiery redhead with the voice of an angel he knows from Choir. The one girl he seriously considered asking out, the one he might still ask out if he manages to keep his promise to his parents and get through an entire year. No one knows who started it, though it may have come from a group of senior girls who like to party; they would have been there to see. It circulates through giggles at lockers and significant glances over books, whispers between lab partners, lewd comments silenced before a teacher can overhear. It reaches him at lunchtime. It’s a day he’s remembered to bring a lunch, and he’s sitting out near the back forty with Jay and a couple of Jay’s mates, when one of the Stoner crowd joins them. He’s just come from having a toke in the groundskeeper’s shed with some of the others of that set; his eyes are red and he reeks of dope.
“Ye’d best visit the showers before the bell rings, Geordie,” he tells him. The fellow’s name is actually Gordon, but no one minds it when he gives them a Scots flavor. They think it’s cool. “Ye stink. It gets in the hair, ken.”
“I’ve got Farnham next hour,” the fellow replies, naming the Civics teacher, whom everyone knows carries a flask and has a nip between each class. “He’ll never notice.” He plops down on the ground among them. “Hey, you know that Shelagh Kennedy chick?”
His eyes narrow. “Aye, I mind her.”
“Timber likes her,” one of Jay’s mates, Nathan, puts in.
“Whist. What about her?”
“Dude, you might want to get your dick checked out,” Gordon says. “Last weekend she went to this party up at the college? And she banged, like, this entire fraternity. Just bent over the keg in the front room and was all, give it to me. Custard Josh heard it from Suzie Marklee, and she said her sister was there.”
The blood rises behind his eyes so fast and violently that redness blinds him for a moment. So that’s the idea, then: attacking his friends. Blake couldn’t take him, so he’ll go after the people around him. Almost, he jumps up to hunt the wee fuck down and remind him what it’s like to have his testicles shoved up his anus. He forces himself to breathe and manages to get his brain in gear. He has no proof, only a feeling that may or may not be true. School are full of cruelty, and girls can be savage; with four sisters, he has cause to know it. The story could have come from anywhere. Even if Blake did start it, going after him would be falling right in with the bastard’s plans. For some reason, the bloke wants to be attacked on school grounds; he sees it, although he doesn’t understand it yet.
“Dùin do ghob, a’Ghoraidh,” he snaps, making a violent, slashing motion with his hand, which against his will turns into a fist. “Geordie, shut your mouth. It’s nane o’ your business.”
“But, check it out, she…”
He’s on his feet. “I dinna care. If she did what she did of her ain will, ye’ve naething tae say about it. If it wasna her will, she’ll be hurt enough, and doesna need ignorant fools spreading filth about her. If it happened at all.”
His hands close on the sack holding the remains of his lunch, crumpling it into a ball, which he hurls at the trash bin ten feet away. It circles the rim, goes in. He stalks away from the others, hearing a low whistle, Jay’s voice saying, “Wow. Remember not to make him mad after this,” someone else adding, “He really must have liked her.” He jerks open the school door, wondering it doesn’t fly off its hinges from the force of his rage. Inside, he spends the rest of the lunch hour and most of his free period in the weight room, turning his fury into sweat where he doesn’t have to interact with anyone or hear any more of the gossip.
Fifteen minutes before he’s due in History, he feels calmer, but not yet calm enough to sit through a lecture on the War of the Roses, or whatever the topic might be today. He decides to ditch. A quick, cold shower clears his head the rest of the way, and he knows where to go.
The Choir room is at the end of the north wing, a small, windowless space crowded with a piano, music stands, chairs and risers. It connects to the choir teacher’s office, but she isn’t there. In fact, at first he thinks no one is there and that he’s wrong, but then he hears someone sniffling. He follows his ears into a corner and up the risers; they’re curved and don’t meet the back wall, but leave a space a slender person could squeeze into. He lies down on his chest on the top riser and sticks his head into the gap. Shelagh gazes up at him, red-eyed. She’s cried off most of her makeup. Her mascara is clotted and her blush has sticky streaks in it.
“You heard,” she says.
“Aye.” He doesn’t ask her if it’s true. He guesses from her tears that it’s not, or at least not the whole story. And besides, as he told Geordie, it’s not his business what Shelagh chooses to do with her body. But then, if something happened she didn’t want, perhaps he should try to find out. “D’ye want tae tell me about it?”
“There’s nothing to tell. It’s total crap. I wasn’t even there. I wouldn’t go to a frat party if you paid me.”
“Ah.” He’d expected something of the kind. “D’ye ken who started it?”
She shrugs and wipes her nose on her arm. “Some bitch. They always have a target. They just picked me this week.”
“Ye’ve no particular enemies?”
It makes her laugh a little. “Is that the braw Scots lad talking? You make it sound like a war.”
He thinks, High school is more like war than you imagine. But he doesn’t believe she’d understand it, or wish to understand it. For all her fire, she’s never been badly used before. It makes him angry all over again, the way people can turn at a whim on those who’ve never done any harm, simply out of viciousness.
“Will ye come out?” he asks.
With a sigh, she wipes her face again and climbs out from beneath the risers. He moves to make way for her, and she sits down beside him, hugging her knees.
“I probably look like shit,” she says.
“You’re lovely as always.”
“Shut up.” She shoves him, not hard, but she hits the bruise from Saturday’s fight. He winces. She doesn’t seem to notice.
“I guess it could have been Terri Kane,” she muses, and slides her eyes at him. “She was pissed you turned her down, you know.”
He scratches his head, trying to fit a face to the name. “The wee senior with the fine breasts?” he ventures. He hadn’t liked her. In fact, she’d frightened him a bit. Something predatory about her made him wonder if he’d come back from any encounter with all his parts intact.
“God, Timber! You don’t even keep track, do you?” To his relief, she sounds more amused than offended. But then he realizes she can afford to be amused because she doesn’t have any deep feeling for him. They’ve fooled around, and it was nice, but that’s all it will ever be. If he did get around to asking her out, she’d say no. Other things interest her more than boys, perhaps. Or perhaps he’s too attractive and she doesn’t want a chap who attracts so much attention from the other girls. It hurts some, the dull throb of disappointment in the pit of his stomach.
“Shall I speak to her?” he offers.
Her eyes flash. She has pretty eyes, green flecked with gold. They’re what drew him to her in the first place. That, and her voice. And her hair. He has a weakness for redheads.
“I can fight my own battles, MacDuff.” She blows out a gust of air, making a strand of her hair fly up. “But I’ll probably just let the whole thing blow over. My grandma would tell me not to stir the pot. Anyway, my folks will know it’s not true. I was home all weekend.” She flashes an impish smile at him. “Grounded.”
“Aye, you’re a naughty lass, ye are.” He’s looking at the way her breasts curve under her sweater and thinking he’d very much like to do some more kissing. But her eyes are distant. She’d not welcome it right now. He moves several inches away down the riser. “I mind Terri Kane now,” he says. “She’s with that chap who runs with Blake Richards, aye?”
“She’s with anyone,” Shelagh begins, then her brows contract, suspicious. “Why do you care?”
A voice in the back of his brain tells him he should say something like, “Because I care about you.” But it’s not the whole truth, and he’s still feeling the ache of realizing she doesn’t want him so much. So he says,
“Blake and I had it out. I won.”
“So?” she asks. Then she gets it. “And you thought he set Terri on me to get back at you? You arrogant prick! Is that why you came to find me? To look for a reason to blame Blake? Everything’s not about you, Timber MacDuff!”
She struggles to her feet and stomps down the risers. He stares after her, uncertain what he’s done wrong, stunned by the way she’s gone from tears to anger in the space of a few minutes. Someone did her an injury, shouldn’t she want to know who and why? Shouldn’t she want some kind of justice?
“Shelagh…” he says. “I ditched History to be with ye if ye needed me.”
“Do you want a prize?” She goes over to the piano, not looking at him, and starts to collect a stack of sheet music. “I can’t spend time with you right now. I have to practice for Octet.”
She’s out the door. And it baffles him. Until thirty seconds ago, she seemed perfectly willing to spend time with him. He only wanted to help her, too. Make sure nothing of the kind ever happened again.
He stretches out on his back on the riser, thinking he might as well have left matters alone. He managed to get Shelagh mad at him and he’s still no proof of Blake’s involvement. Perhaps his suspicions had nothing in them, after all.
* * *
A few days later someone steals Geordie’s street shoes from the locker room while he’s in PE. It’s nothing but petty mischief; Geordie doesn’t even care. His street shoes were an old pair of Converse with the uppers trashed and one of the soles almost falling off. He’d rather wear his PE shoes anyway, he says; they’re more comfortable. But one of the other Stoners mentions in passing that Geordie loved those shoes. His mom had been trying to talk them off his feet for a year, but he kept them because they were the last thing his dad bought him before he split.
Then someone breaks into the Art room and vandalizes the place. No permanent damage except for the painting Tommy Shaw has been working on since the beginning of school. And Tommy is one of Jay’s mates. They don’t hang out too much anymore, but they’ve been neighbors since grade school.
It’s malice, plain and simple. It makes his hackles rise. He knows it’s aimed at him, because he had the stones to teach Blake Richards a lesson. Fine lesson, he thinks, wondering what will happen next. The waiting makes him sweat; it prickles against his skin, presses on his chest so it’s difficult to draw breath. He becomes short-tempered and snaps at people who greet him in the halls, so that except for a loyal few they begin to drift away. Brooding, he stops paying attention in class. His English teacher asks him if everything is all right at home, and he has to bite his tongue to keep from snarling at her. His academic work slides downhill.
The spite isn’t constant, either. Blake—if it is Blake; he still has no proof—is smarter than he expected, and has more patience, too. If it were constant, someone else, someone in authority, might begin to notice. If it were constant, it wouldn’t be such torture. He’d be able to find a connection, he thinks, and put a stop to it. He’s sure only a very few must know he’s the real target. But for Blake and his mates, he hasn’t made any enemies; no one has a reason to hate him, and if they did, they’d tell him so to his face. He hopes they would, at least. On the other hand, he has no true friends, either. For the first time, he thinks perhaps keeping the other students at a distance has been a mistake. There’s no one he can speak with. No one to stand by his side.
Sometimes he finds himself laughing at his own foolishness, a sour ironic chuckle that tears at his throat. From his time on the run, his time on the streets, he’s well versed in the evil one person can do another. But he has no experience at all of how to handle the horrors of high school.
One or two incidents a day for several days in a row, then a pause for a day or two. Always directed at those with whom he’s spent time, eaten lunch, studied with, shared a kind word. A nasty notice posted on a locker. An important assignment stolen and destroyed. Bruises picked up from a PE class gone suddenly rough, but these things happen. Teenagers have a great deal of energy; it gets out of control. Teenagers struggle every day with frightening feelings and new experiences. Sometimes they take it out on others in inappropriate ways. Life’s like that, isn’t it? They need to learn things aren’t always just and fair. Besides, it will blow over. No real harm done.
He watches Blake, watches Blake’s mates. He positions himself at the far edges of their territory: the table they’ve claimed on the grounds, the lower section of the front steps, the piece of wall outside the gym. He sees nothing, hears nothing. They know he’s there. Sometimes Blake looks up, meets his eyes, smiles. Are you ready yet? the smile says. And always he shakes his head, walks away. Not yet.
At the end of October someone tips off the faculty to the goings-on in the groundskeeper’s shed. Someone tips off the Stoners, too, so none of them get caught when the raid happens during mid-morning break. But the principal can smell the lingering aroma of dope through the gasoline and oil odors of the hedge trimmers and riding mowers, and he finds a couple roaches somebody careless left behind. It’s enough to make him call for a locker search. Everyone gets herded out of fourth hour and lined up in the halls. One by one, a teacher looking on so that no damaging evidence can be concealed or destroyed, they open their lockers and empty them.
In Nathan’s locker they find a gram of purple bud, papers, a pipe. Nathan is taken away to the office, where his parents are called. He’s suspended, faces expulsion.
“It wasn’t his,” Jay tells him at lunch. It’s just the two of them, under the oak tree where they first met. For some reason no one seems to be able to explain, Timber MacDuff has stopped being a cool person to hang out with. “He’s totally straight. He’s never even smoked a cigarette.”
“Ye believe someone planted it, then?” He frowns at the oak stick he’s turning into a pile of splinters with his pocket knife. Most times, he doesn’t bring the knife out at school; the students aren’t supposed to carry them. But he needs something to do with his hands, to keep him from committing some act of random violence.
“It wouldn’t have been hard,” Jay says. “He never locks his locker.”
He grunts. Lots of the kids keep the lock dials set on the final number of their combination, so the tumblers never clear. It saves a few minutes getting books between class periods, when they don’t have to dial the combination every time.
“I did warn ye about that,” he says.
“Shit.” Jay leans back against the tree, gazes unhappily out across the playing field. “He’s my chem partner, too. Now I’m going to have to do the molecular weight lab by myself.”
They sit in silence for a while.
“Jay, lad,” he begins.
Jay punches him in the shoulder. It’s a bit like being punched by a fly and he shrugs it off.
“Don’t call me ‘lad.’ I told you. I’m almost two years older than you are.”
“Aye. I forgot, sorry.” His mind isn’t on the apology; he has something important to say. “Jay, watch your back.”
The lad’s face clouds. Then he snickers.
“You think I’m next or something? Man, that’s out there.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Ye’ve not seen the pattern? All my…” He searches for a word and realizes it’s far past time for him to own the truth. “All my friends, my mates have had trouble.”
“There’s always something,” Jay says, but he frowns.
“Aye, perhaps. But have ye noticed it’s only the two of us sitting here?”
He watches the pieces come together behind Jay’s eyes. He’s a smart lad, one of the smartest in the school, perhaps.
“Och.” He shrugs. He’s never told anyone but Shelagh, and as far as he knows she never passed it on. They barely speak anymore. “Blake and I had words a few weeks back.”
“Words?” Jay smirks. “Yeah, I’ll bet. So you think he’s trying to get back at you or something?”
“I dunno, Timber. That sounds really paranoid. I mean, it’s been going on a long time, since way before you showed up. Someone’s always dishing shit, and it’s always the same people who have to eat it. Have you got any proof?”
The calm note in Jay’s face, in his voice, make his heart sore. His friend has already accepted that life gives some people the short end of the stick, that there are those with an easy path and those with a hard one and he is one of the latter. He’s consented to bear the burden, something that, for good or ill, Timber MacDuff could never do.
“No,” he says. “I’ve no proof. But watch your back, all the same.”
Jay nods, checks his watch. “I’m gonna take off. If Nathan’s not going to be there, I want to get to chem early and set up.”
He tosses the oak stick aside, pockets his knife. Brushes splinters and sawdust from his jeans. “I’ll come with ye.”
Jay picks up his stack of books. He always carries them everywhere because, he says, he never knows when he’ll need one and his locker’s all the way down in the west wing.
They walk across the lawn, around the end of the building and toward the front stairs. He has his hands in his pockets, fingering the few things he carries. His knife, of course. A rock he found interesting. A disc of wood from the crabapple tree behind the house. He left his own books with the geranium, which is, against all expectations, thriving. They start up the steps and he’s wondering whether he should tell the secretary who looks after the indoor plants that geraniums need less water and more light, when Jay pauses and turns around.
“I don’t think Blake has it to do what you think he’s doing. I’ve known him since grade school, and he’s always been the same. Sure, he’ll go after you if you get in his face. And he always has to put new kids in their place. You just have to remember to keep out of his way.”
Aye, like that’s possible. He bristles. “Are ye defending him?”
Jay shrugs, juggling his books. “No. He’s a dick. But I don’t think he has a long enough attention span to…stick to some kind of weird plot.”
Perhaps not, he thinks. But people can do strange things when they’re threatened. They find reserves of cunning they never knew they had.
“I’ll bear it in mind.”
“I gotta go. See you later?”
Jay turns back around. They’re almost at the top of the stairs. He’s below the lad and to his outside, but now he takes two steps at once, coming up a bit above him, not very close. Jay’s just put his foot on the next step, hasn’t yet transferred his weight, when a bloke comes out the door. It’s one of Blake’s mates, one who was at the overpass. The bloke plunges down the stairs, apparently without looking, but he saw the eyes focus, small and mean, and knows what happens next will be intentional. The bloke collides with Jay, not full-on, just a bump of the shoulders.
“Sorry,” Jay mutters, trying to slide past, make himself invisible. It’s his usual tactic and effective for the most part. But this time it doesn’t work.
“Hey, nerdface!” The bloke makes a grab at Jay’s shirt. “Watch where you’re going!”
It’s a weird replay of the scene the very first morning, as if a scriptwriter has edited it for more violence, more action. It holds him transfixed, waiting for the books to scatter, waiting for the blow to fall.
“I said I was sorry,” Jay protests, the first strong words he’s ever heard come out of the lad’s mouth. And he thinks, most times it’s right to stick up for yourself. But not now.
“Fuck sorry,” says the bloke, and shoves Jay down the stairs. He doesn’t wait to see the result of his work, but brushes between them and lopes down the rest of the steps and away.
The lad’s arms windmill as he tries to catch his balance. The books fly up. Jay staggers down a step, facing the wrong way. For a moment, it seems he’ll be able to recover. He lunges forward and shoots an arm out, trying to grab the lad’s collar, his arm, anything; his fingers close on air. Jay trips down another step. Then his foot slips against the stair’s sharp edge and twists under him. His legs fly up, propelling him backward. There’s an instant of what almost looks like flight. Then Jay lands on his spine across the three bottom steps. His head cracks down on cement with a sickening crunch, and he lies still.
The books hit the ground, pages fluttering.
A girl standing near the top of the stair on the other side of the rail gasps, hand to her mouth, and runs in the door.
He’s down the steps in one leap. In another second he’s kneeling by Jay’s side. There’s no blood he can see, but the lad’s skin has gone dead white, and when he grabs the wrist to search for a pulse, the muscles are slack and unresponsive. Although he already knows better, he prays the lad has just had the wind knocked out of him.
He can’t find a pulse in the wrist, so he tries the neck. Still nothing. The lad hit his head hard. He probes the back of his friend’s skull, finds it mushy, like a rotten pumpkin. His fingers come away sticky.
“Come on, a’Sheumais,” he begs, feeling wetness on his cheeks. This is his fault, he knows. Proof or no, he should have confronted Blake, put an end to the harassment in any way he could. Why had he not done so? Because he promised to behave? To try? Because he dreaded what his parents would say? He’s a pitiful coward and no excuse for a human being, then. Behaving is no good when souls are at stake.
The lad doesn’t answer. He isn’t breathing.
He cannot let this happen. He reaches into himself, deep into the pit of his stomach and taps his excess energy, his frustration and rage and sorrow and fear. There’s no end to any of them; they burn like lava at his core, inexhaustible as the molten center of the earth. He summons it into his lungs, breathes it out through his arms, and his hands heat up. Another breath down. He lays a hand on Jay’s forehead. Another breath out. The hot tide gushes from him. It knits the shattered bone, drives clotting blood from the brain.
Jay begins to breathe, so shallowly it’s difficult to tell there’s been any change. But something is unfinished. There’s still a strange sense of emptiness about the lad, like a house with the lights on but nobody inside. He’s as whole as he can be made right now, but he has a piece missing.
It could not have gone far. He has no idea why he believes this. He grew up in the faith that a body’s death—and Jay was dead—resulted in the soul’s immediate departure for some other realm. But he knows that isn’t the case here. He can feel the essence of Jay hanging around, still stunned at what has happened. He can almost see the puzzled look on the lad’s face. In fact, he feels Jay pressing against his right shoulder as he leans over to gaze in perplexity at his own empty body. So, without thinking about it, he swivels on his knees, snatches the wandering soul out of the air and, with a tap on the top of Jay’s head and a forceful breath out, shoves it back into the body where it belongs.
“Stay put, now,” he orders, and Jay opens his eyes.
“Wha—?” Jay mumbles, as if waking up from an intense dream.
He squeezes the lad’s hand. “Be still. Ye’ve had a fall.” Remembering the girl who’d run into the building, he adds, “Help is coming.”
He gives Jay’s hand another squeeze and stands up.
“Where’re you going?” the lad whispers.
“I’ve something tae attend,” he says, and walks off across the lawn just as the principal and the PE teacher run out the door.
He does not look back. He does not hesitate, not even when, sirens blaring, an ambulance and a police cruiser turn the corner and pull up in front of the school. Moving at a steady pace, he searches out his prey, eyes flicking from side to side in brief glances, examining and abandoning the places the bastard hangs out. Not near the front steps; aye, he already knew that. Not by the gym entrance or the south door. It’ll be the table, then. And aye, there they are, half a dozen of them, including the bloke who pushed Jay down the stairs. Likely he came to report on what he’d done. Had it been planned, or had he simply taken the opportunity that presented itself? No matter. He did it, and doubtless Jay had been on the target list all along.
Blake sees him, and his lips twist into a wide grin full of malice.
“Look who’s here,” he remarks to his mates, who all focus on his approach. “Come to beg for mercy, MacDuff?”
He does not answer, does not stop. A boot on the bench between the asses of two of Blake’s mates. A boot on the table. No posturing, no taking a stance. No warning. His trailing leg comes forward, and he kicks Blake in the teeth.
Blake goes over backwards. His mates scatter.
He jumps down into the space Blake has recently vacated, down to the ground. Reaches for Blake’s collar and heaves him up to his knees. He drives a knee into the bloke’s chin, then punches him in the nose. The nose breaks; blood gushes out. It’s a satisfying sight.
“Ye fuck,” he snarls, giving the bloke a shake, then tossing him back to the ground. “Ye waste o’ breath.” He plants a kick in Blake’s side. “This stops. It stops now.”
“Make me.” Blake rises to his hands and knees. He’s a tough son of a whore, right enough; anyone else would stay down. Anyone with the sense the gods gave pigs, at least. For his trouble, he receives another kick in the head. The skin of his temple splits and begins to spill more blood. He’s already bleeding from the mouth as well as his broken nose. Yet there’s a look on his face, almost of triumph.
It sends him mad. He knows he’s been manipulated and hates it. He also knows he could not have done anything other than what he is doing, and he hates that even more. He hauls Blake to his feet once again, slams him into the table. Drags him up by the shirt and hurls him away. The bloke lands on his back, and almost before he knows what he’s about he’s astride the bastard, planting a punch in his jaw. He takes Blake by the shoulders, shakes him until his teeth rattle, and drives his head into the ground.
Blake doesn’t fight back. He doesn’t even try. In part of his head, a part that has remained cold and distant, he knows this is a bad sign of something. But it’s so easy to tell himself that Blake has had no time, has been too overwhelmed to react. Yet his shattered mouth still holds that smug expression. And although he punches the bastard over and over again, he can’t wipe it away.
Running feet and the sense of a crowd building up around him. Someone shouts; it’s the principal’s voice:
“Mister MacDuff! Stop that immediately!”
And it’s so idiotic, so unable to pierce his rage, let alone bring an end to it, that he wants to laugh. But only a strange, defiant sort of growl escapes his throat. He slams Blake’s head into the ground again.
Then there’s a new voice, one he doesn’t know, ordering him to cease and desist, to stand down. Two pairs of hands close on his arms, drag him off of Blake’s body. He struggles instinctively; his fist contacts something that cracks and someone swears. A person he cannot see through the haze in his brain raises a billy club. It falls on the back of his head, bringing him to his knees. He tries to get up. The club strikes him again, once, twice.
Everything goes black. He could swear he hears Blake laughing.
* * *
So now he’s sitting in a cell. He’s still cuffed. The officers don’t trust him far enough to allow him the freedom of his hands, although they did move the cuffs from his back to his front. He has a vague memory of being hauled to his feet, of his arms being wrenched behind him. The ratcheting click as the cold metal bit into his wrists. The two officers who had arrived with the ambulance marched him to the cruiser, one on either side of him, the one he had struck in his blind fury still rubbing his jaw. They loaded him into the back. Perhaps they read him his rights. If he has any rights. He’s not a citizen. They can’t have known that unless someone at the school told them.
Downtown, they fingerprinted him, photographed him, charged him with felony assault. Stuck him in this cell to wait while they called his parents and decided what to do with him. The entire time, he didn’t say a word.
They charged him with assault, not murder. So Blake is still alive.
He wishes he’d killed him.
He feels like Hell, not just from getting clubbed unconscious and arrested, and not just from the overwhelming certainty of his own idiocy. He doesn’t regret what he did. In fact, he wishes he’d done it sooner. But he’s disgusted with himself for being stupid enough to let Blake set him up. And something’s not right with him. His eyes won’t quite focus and he has a fierce headache. Well, those could both be from the clubbing, and perhaps the dizziness could be, too. He’s cold all over, though. He hunches his shoulders to keep from shivering, and thinks he ought to get up and walk around, pace the cell, get his blood moving. Except he feels too weak to move. He doesn’t think his legs will hold him up. His heart beats too slowly in his chest, a sluggish pulse with a gurgle to it like an old coffeepot. His breath stabs him, and each time he inhales, lights dance before his eyes. Even when he keeps them closed.
He thinks perhaps, when he did whatever it was that he did, he gave too much of himself to Jay. It’s all right, though. Jay needed it more than he does. And then he used too much of what was left beating the crap out of Blake. But that’s all right, too. It needed to be done.
It’s all right.
He thinks he might perhaps pass out. Or puke. Perhaps both.
The cell door opens and an officer comes in. There’s a woman with him, a social worker or something of the kind, in a slim skirt and tailored jacket.
“Why’s he cuffed?” she snaps at the officer. Her voice makes hollow echoes in his head.
“He turned a kid into hamburger and he struck an officer. You tell me,” the cop replies.
“Take them off him,” the woman orders.
Hands on his wrists. A key clicks in a lock.
“Timber?” the woman says. “I’m Sonia Marshall. The court has assigned me as your advocate. Will you talk to me?”
He looks up, seeing two of her, then one, then three.
“Aye,” he says. But before he can go any farther, he finds himself on the ground, blinking up at the ceiling. The woman is yelling at the cop, accusing him of using excessive force against a minor. Then both his ears and his vision shut off, and his shadow swallows him.
* * *
He surfaces, ears ringing, head throbbing. He guesses it’s not very much later; the woman is still arguing with the cop.
“This child belongs in a hospital!” she says. “When I report this, the case will get thrown out!”
“The kid’s a maniac,” the cop insists. His tone admits no error and leaves no room for compromise. “He would have killed the other boy. He presented a clear danger. We had to take him down.”
“At least you didn’t shoot him,” the woman sniffs.
“Should hae killed me,” he mumbles. Neither of them seems to hear him, though, so perhaps he’s dreaming. A dream would make more sense than two adults arguing about his welfare while leaving him passed out on the floor.
Since it’s a dream, he decides to go somewhere else. He’d like it to be somewhere pleasant. His first thought is to go back to Skye, but his mind turns away; it’s not time yet. He finds himself in a spruce forest in unfamiliar mountains. Streams cross occasional meadows, some dotted with wildflowers, one with white yarrow. Rocks jut from the ground like weathered bones, and the air is heavy with the scents of pollen and sap. It’s a good place, somewhere he’d like to stay. He sits on a half-rotten log and turns his face to the light.
“You can’t stay here,” someone says. “You’re not ready.”
He glances down to see a large, tawny cat stretched at his feet. A mountain lion; he remembers a picture in a book. It does not seem strange that the cat has spoken.
“You have to go on or go back,” the cat says.
He thinks about going back. To the cell, to the consequences of his actions. That would not be so bad. He could do that. But then, after, there’d be the same struggles to face. The wearing discomfort of his existence, too large, too full of things best not explored. Problems without solutions. Trying to fit in, find a place in a world he sometimes cannot bear. And later, blood and fire.
He does not want to go back.
Looking ahead, he sees low clouds veiling the mountaintop. They part a wee bit and the sun pours through, a gold so pure it breaks his heart. He thinks finding the source of such beauty would be a fine thing to do.
“I’ll go on,” he says. All the same, he feels a bit afraid. He asks the cat, “Will ye come with me?”
She blinks at him. He sees sorrow in her star-filled eyes.
“I am a creature of this realm. I cannot accompany you beyond,” she says. “But I wish you well.”
He starts to stand, knowing without knowing that he’ll reach the cloud cover in a single step and a second will take him through. But then another voice speaks, and the sound catches him the way a hook catches an unsuspecting fish.
“Timber. You come back now, boy.” The voice speaks to someone else. “You call him.”
“Fiodh. Fiodh, lad. Come now, wake up. Come home.”
He opens his eyes. His father and Mitch are both squatting on the ground beside him. They take his hands and help him to sit. And though he’s certain it will hurt them, he can’t help himself; he bursts into tears. Because he almost made it this time. Two steps would have brought him to the place he’s been running toward for two and a half years. He could have stopped then. He could have rested at last. But he made up his mind too late. Now the long dark road stretches ahead of him and the place of his dream is beyond his reach.
After a long while, he stops crying. Da hands him a handkerchief; he blows his nose. Mitch hands him a clean shirt, so he can take off the one covered in Blake’s blood. The woman—she’s been there all along, but he hadn’t noticed her—says the tears will count in his favor; they’re a sign of remorse. She tells him he’s going to be released into the custody of his parents, but there are some details to take care of first, and she asks if he’s up to them. He nods and struggles to his feet. His legs are still shaky. They give out suddenly and he has to sit down on the bench in the cell for a while with his head between his knees.
All the time, he feels the old Native man’s eyes on him. He wonders why he’s there, why his father brought him.
“Is your son ill?” he hears the woman ask.
“He was well this morning,” Da replies. “As far as he let us know, ken.”
“We’ll arrange to have him checked out,” the woman decides. “If an illness caused him to have a mental break of some kind, we could get the charges reduced.”
When he recovers, they go to a conference room. He gives a statement. It’s difficult. He doesn’t like to speak of the way Blake Richards persecuted his friends, doesn’t like to admit he let it go on so long. Nor does he like to admit he turned out to be too weak to ignore it.
The woman, his advocate, shuffles some papers. “According to the school, the boy’s a known bully. Still, a…campaign of harassment… It’s hard to believe a child could execute such a thing.”
He rests his forehead on the table, thinking, Adults have no idea what children are capable of.
“What did ye do tae him, lad?” Da asks. “What cause had he, tae take against ye?”
I picked up a book. I looked him in the eye and was not afraid. I refused to cower. I was tall.
I showed him how little he counted to me.
“Naething,” he mumbles. “I did naething.”
“Timber,” his father says. “Raise your head and look at me, lad.”
He lifts his head from the table, meets his father’s eyes. It’s like looking in a mirror, one that ages him. The same deep blue gaze. The same fair skin, high cheekbones and straight nose. The same thick, dark hair. His father is only beginning to go grey.
“Ye ken we’re not yet citizens of this country,” Da says, voice calm and even as always. “We’ve only just been here long enough tae apply.”
“Aye,” he whispers. Until he’d been arrested, he hadn’t given the fact a thought.
“A person convicted of a violent crime can never be made an American citizen,” his father goes on.
His stomach lurches. He hadn’t known that, or if he had, he’d forgotten. Whether or not he becomes an American citizen isn’t something he thinks about.
The woman clicks her tongue. “That won’t be a problem,” she tells his father. “As long as you or the boy’s mother naturalize before he turns eighteen, he becomes a citizen automatically, without prejudice.”
Da relaxes with a sigh.
“That’s four years. What about now?” Mitch asks.
She purses her lips. “Blake Richards’ father is a lawyer. He’s moved to have Timber deported as a person of poor moral character.”
His eyes close. Blake must have found out somehow. A casual question over dinner, perhaps. It doesn’t matter. He knew. He set the whole thing up to get Timber MacDuff removed, not just from the school, but from the entire country. Perhaps it won’t be so bad, he thinks. He has no attachment to America. Except his family is here. And they’d likely send him back to Skye. The idea would have made him leap for joy, once. Now it fills him with dread.
“It’s a token protest,” she assures them. “It can’t happen. A juvenile can’t be deported simply for coming into the justice system. And they won’t send a minor away from his family.”
Again, his father sighs. For the first time he can remember, Da’s eyes flash toward him with something almost like anger.
“Your mither will be relieved tae hear it. You’ve put her in a right state, Timber. Perhaps from now on ye’ll consider the consequences of your actions. Tae your whole family, not just yourself.”
“Blake killed my friend,” he blurts.
Everyone stares at him.
“The boy who fell down the steps?” the woman asks.
“One of Blake’s mates pushed him. On purpose. But Blake planned it should happen.”
His advocate shuffles her papers some more and taps the end of her pen on the desk. He can tell she’s wondering if he’s delusional, with all his talk of conspiracy. She’s thinking if he’s mentally disturbed she can perhaps get him off.
“The lad’s not deid, Timber,” his father says. Then he raises an eyebrow at the advocate. “He isna, is he?”
“No. Severe concussion, bruised spine and cracked ribs. He’ll be all right.”
“Still, if Timber believed he was deid, it would explain a great deal. Would it not?”
The two of them keep talking as if he’s not there. He tries to retreat into himself. He’s very tired, and his brief period of unconsciousness did nothing to help. But he feels eyes on him again. It’s Mitch, who’s sitting on his left side.
“He was deid,” he mutters.
“And now he’s not,” the old man replies. “How did that happen?”
It’s such a relief to be believed that he decides to confess.
“I…I did something. I dinna ken what, not exactly. Gave him something of myself, perhaps.” He glances up; his father and the advocate are still discussing him. He goes on in a low voice, so as not to draw their attention. “He breathed, but he didna come back. So I found the missing piece of him and stuck it intae his head, where it belonged. That’s all.”
Mitch grunts. Then he smiles weakly.
“That’s all,” he repeats. “This is not something you should do again for a long time, if ever. Most times, it is best to let the dead go.”
“The way ye let me go?”
“You were not dead.”
Up at the top of the table, his father and the advocate finish their conversation. They leave the conference room, go before a judge. The advocate manages to argue the charge down from Assault II, a Class B felony, to Assault IV, a Class A misdemeanor. Because of his youth, because he’s a first offender. Because he didn’t use a weapon; it’s a very good thing he didn’t pull his knife. It comes out that he didn’t do Blake as much damage as it looked like at first. He’s in the hospital for observation in case there’s internal bleeding, but aside from the nose there’s nothing broken. The first kick knocked out several teeth, but missed shattering the bastard’s jaw.
“Kid’s got a cast iron head,” mutters the judge, who seems to know Blake’s family. “Too bad there’s so little in it.”
He sets bail at a thousand dollars, slams his gavel. Gives them a court date in two weeks’ time. Da declines a bondsman and pays the bail up front. There are some papers to sign, his personal effects to reclaim. Then, late in the evening, they release him.
On the way to the car he almost falls down again. Mitch catches his arm, hauls him back up.
“You should eat.” The old man produces a flattened bar of chocolate from his shirt pocket, offers it to him. He waves it away.
“I’m not hungry.”
“You gave away too much. If you’re not hungry, that’s bad. It means your system is shutting down. You eat that.”
He scowls at the old man, but Mitch simply stands there, holding the candy under his nose. At last, with a final, mutinous glare, he gives in, rips the wrapper off the chocolate, takes a bite. His stomach heaves when he tries to swallow, but he manages to get it down. After the first taste, he finds himself ravenous and all but gulps the rest of the bar whole. It doesn’t fix everything, but for the first time since healing Jay his head clears and he can walk without wobbling.
“Told you,” Mitch says.
Through the entire exchange, Da has been waiting by the car. It puzzles him some that his father should be keeping his distance. Malcolm MacDuff isn’t the world’s most demonstrative man, but he’s not unfeeling. And shouldn’t a man stick close by his son who’s come under the eye of the law? To support him, or to restrain him, one or the other. It seems, though, that Da’s letting Mitch do all that.
They drive home in silence. He thinks they’ll drop Mitch back at his own place on the way, but the old man comes with them. In ten minutes they’re pulling into the drive. The place looks nearly deserted. There are few lights on downstairs and none at all shine from the second floor windows. Like a house where someone has died, he thinks, and shivers.
“We sent Ash and the girls tae your gran’s,” his father informs him. “Your mither and I wish tae speak with ye alone.”
“Why’s Mitch here?” he asks point blank.
“We asked him here,” Da says, and he knows better than to question that blunt tone.
He follows the two men, his father and Mitch, into the house. He’s barely set foot in the door when his mother bustles in from the kitchen, strides up to him, and slaps him hard across the face.
“Timber Alasdair MacDuff, you’re a disgrace tae your faither’s name! Have ye learned naething? What in the Good Lord’s name d’ye mean, beating another lad half tae death, and he did naething tae deserve it? I’m ashamed tae have ye in my house!”
He stands still and takes it until his father takes his mother by the arm and draws her off.
“Whist, Moira. He thought his friend had been killed.”
“Violence wouldna hae brought him back! I’ll not be surprised if they throw ye out of the country! I’d like tae kick ye back tae Skye meself!”
“That wilna happen,” Da says.
Mam wilts and starts to cry. His father takes her in his arms and strokes her back, murmuring in Gaelic. He stands by the door, feeling lost and out of place. His hands suddenly seem too big; he wants a place to put them but can’t think of anywhere they’d be out of the way.
Eventually Mam shakes herself and dries her face on her apron.
“Well then, I’ll make us some tea,” she says, punctuating the words with a brisk nod. “And I expect Timber could use some supper. I kept a plate warm.”
“I’m not…” he begins, and his father and Mitch both glare at him. “Aye, that would be very kind, Mam. Thank ye.”
Da nods to the worn sofa under the west window. “Have a seat, lad.”
He perches uneasily on one cushion, trying not to take up too much space. Mitch claims the sofa’s other end, and his father takes his usual armchair. None of them say anything, and his stomach clenches because if they’re going to talk in the parlor instead of going into the kitchen, he’s in more trouble than he imagined.
His mother comes back in with a laden tray, which she sets on the tea table. She pours tea for everyone and hands the cups around, then moves the tray in front of him. A plate with a wedge of shepherd’s pie, glazed carrots, sprouts. Another with half a loaf of fresh bread. Yet another with a stack of raisin biscuits; his mother cooks when she’s upset. She’ll expect him to eat all of it, too. He picks up his fork and sets to work, though it turns to dust in his mouth and he can barely swallow.
The three adults watch him. They still don’t speak.
When he’s finished all he can and set the plate aside, his father clears his throat.
“Timber, lad,” he says. “Your mither and I are at our wits’ end. We dinna ken what tae do with ye, and that’s a fact.” He makes a face as if tasting bitter medicine. “We think it will perhaps be best if ye go elsewhere for a time.”
He blinks. Of all the things his father might have said, he had never expected this one.
“It wasna so uncommon in the old days,” Da continues. “Tae foster out lads when they reached a certain age. Aye, and lasses too. Sometimes,” he glances at Mam for support. She’s sitting in the rocker near the hearth, her teacup balanced on her knees, and her face is a mask, everything true in it hidden. She takes a sip of her tea and dips her chin, encouraging her husband to go on. She does not look at her son.
“Sometimes,” his father says in a somewhat stronger voice, “parents canna do the right thing for their children. Sometimes we canna be firm enough. We want ye tae be happy, lad. It breaks our hearts tae see ye struggle, so perhaps we’re too soft. We canna be the strong wall at your back.”
There’s a pause while Da sips his tea. And he’s thinking nothing at all. His brain has gone totally numb, as if a switch has been shut off.
“Mitch has offered to take ye. He says there are things his people know that will help.”
So that’s why the old man is involved.
“Am I tae go right away?” he whispers, his voice cracking, which it’s never done before.
Da looks at Mitch, who nods.
“Aye,” Da says. “It would be best if ye did.”
“Give me some time tae get my things,” he says. “If ye would, please.”
The three adults exchange a glance.
“I will wait here for you,” Mitch says. “Take what time you need.”
He gets up, climbs the stairs, his legs like lead. In his room, he drags his knapsack out from under the bed and begins shoving things into it without paying any attention. His mind is whirling; it can’t absorb what he’s heard. They’re sending him away to live with Mitch. With the old man who’s brought him back to the world twice now. Who’s responsible for everything in a way, because if he hadn’t been there two and a half years ago, none of this would have happened. And now he’s offering some fucking Indian wisdom? He knows well enough how that’s likely to go. He’ll be forced into shape, forced onto a path he does not want to tread. The one he’s been trying to avoid all along.
As his numbness turns to anger, his movements quicken, become more precise. He folds a last pair of jeans, dumps a few pairs of socks into the pack. Ties off the main compartment. Stuffs an extra flannel into the side pocket and ties it off, too. Glances about the room for anything else he might want to take, sees nothing. Checks his jeans pockets; he’s got his knife, the few small things he carries. Not much cash; he’ll have to panhandle.
He’s leaving. His heart knows it before his brain comprehends and gives him pause. Leaving without seeing the girls again? Without seeing Ash? It will break wee Spruce’s heart; she won’t understand.
Aye, but Mam and Da would have thrown him out with no goodbyes, too.
A heavier jacket. The Greek cap. The last thing he grabs is the bodhrán case. He’d leave it behind; he can’t risk busking too close to Portland or word of where he’s gone might get back through the trad music grapevine. That’s how Da found him last time. But once he gets far enough, he’ll want it.
He opens the window, steps onto the kitchen roof, moving quietly, keeping his tread soft. He’s never done this when his parents have been awake, but Mam’s a light sleeper and he’s learned the way it’s done. At the edge of the roof, he drops his pack into the yew bush by the back door. Then, bodhrán slung over his back, he grabs the rim of the eaves and lowers himself down. It’s easier than it has been in the past. Working out has made him stronger.
As he reclaims his pack, he hears the kettle whistle inside the house. A woman-shaped shadow passes the curtained window. He crouches in the dark beside the yew until it vanishes. Then he slips around the side of the house out to the street and begins to run.
It’s almost five miles to the highway. He picks up a ride on Belmont halfway there, and in half an hour he’s walking beside the on ramp to southbound I-5 with his thumb out. He’s never gone south before, only north. But it’s almost winter. And perhaps the change of direction will throw off any pursuit.
In another fifteen minutes a battered old Chevy pickup blinks its lights at him and pulls over. He’s about to climb in when he sees who’s driving and freezes, hand on the door.
The window rolls down.
“You’re skipping out on your bail,” Mitch says.
He remembers the thousand dollar bond his father posted, a promise that he’d appear in court in two weeks’ time. They’re not as poor as they once were; still, the loss of a thousand dollars is something his parents can ill afford.
“Get in.” Mitch jerks his head at the seat.
“I won’t drive off unless you tell me to. Get in.”
He gets in. For a few minutes they sit in the truck, in the dark at the side of the road.
“I canna go with ye,” he says at last.
“Cannot or will not?” the old man asks, but he doesn’t reply. Mitch sighs. “I told you already, you cannot outrun the thing following you. It will catch you, and if you are not prepared it will eat you alive.”
“For sure. But I cannot make up your mind for you.”
He stares out the windshield to the lights passing on the highway, and he knows his mind is already made up. He faces the old man, and sees the glitter of his eyes.
“Tell Da I’ll make up the bail money.”
He gets out of the truck, starts to close the door behind him. Mitch’s voice stops him.
“You come back when you’re ready. I’ll still be here.”
He slams the door. The truck drives on. He watches the signal lights flash as it merges into traffic.
In another fifteen minutes another car stops. It’s a classic Mustang with a pretty blonde at the wheel. She rolls down her window and smiles at him
“Where are you headed?”
“Away,” he says as he slides into the seat.
They pull onto the highway, and he does not look back to see his shadow following.