From the author: Just about every teenager feels out of place, like they don't belong, even the really confident, successful looking ones. For some of them, this feeling is worse than others. If you would like a soundtrack to this story, try Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill." JVP
Lots of times when I walk in the high school like yesterday, when the monster gave me the death threat, I pretend I'm anti-matter, and the rest of everything is matter. I can't touch anything or the explosion would make Hiroshima seem like a stifled sneeze. No one can help me; I'm totally on my own. Kids push by me on both sides, their faces intent, eyes fish-blank and staring, and I'm sweating, leaning left, pausing, avoiding a contact here, the brush of a sleeve there. The fate of the entire school rests in my ability to slip through the hallway.
I stay in the middle of the flow, away from the turbulent areas next to the lockers or where the opposing streams of traffic slide by. Nothing can graze me. It's rough: slow down, speed up, stay hyper-aware of people's positions. The cross hall that leads left to the offices and the gym to the right, messes up the traffic pattern, but I negotiate through without a tag. A letter jacket dangling a cheerleader and leading a pack of sycophants blocks the way, and I fade into a calm spot by an athletic awards case until they move on.
Two boys, Freshmen probably, in matching "No Fear" t-shirts, wearing visors turned upside down and backwards are shoving at each other in front of me, mouths moving. I don't really listen; I mean, hall-noise is pure white if you don't focus on it, so I see their lips flapping, and they're goosing each other.
Of course, my game's impossible to win, even though high school kids instinctively don't like to touch. I could walk normally through a crowded hall, and nobody would contact me most the time; but accidents happen, you know: people run into each other, and when one of the freshmen turns, he elbows me in the chest. Boom! In my mind we're all dead; the anti-matter/matter event border tearing protons, neutrons and electrons apart, converting mass to energy in a cataclysmic spasm, and I see the shock wave in slow motion blazing through the hall, vaporizing kid after kid, not even knocking them over; just atomizing them. Then my imaginary camera peels away from the school and wide-angles from above, retreating fast as the building turns into a tiny sun, washing the entire valley in acetylene-bright light. Only the surrounding hills that direct the blast up into the sky saves the nearby towns, and a week later, the magma at the bottom of the blast crater still seethes and bubbles.
All because some freshman elbows me in the chest.
So we're all dead, and there's no point in starting over again, when I see two things at once; the first is a skinny Side-by-Side kid trying to get his walker turned around. Side-by-Side's this program at the school to "mainstream" students who most likely would be in institutions otherwise. He's got himself up against a wall and he's trying to turn that way, but every time he jerks the aluminum tubes around, he smacks into the bricks. I don't know why he can't go to his left. The Side-by-Side kids have all kinds of problems that way. I mean, some are blind and have seizures, or are both paraplegic and fetal alcohol syndrome, and most of them look different. Life or the womb wasn't kind to them, but they're a part of the school. Generally I don't see them in the halls with the rest of the students Most "regular" students probably aren't even aware that the Side-by-Side kids exist. They pass before or after the bell. They have their own buses. Since I'm non-traditional myself, I know about them.
So this Side-by-Side kid is clanging his walker against the wall, whimpering to himself, and everyone else is passing by him as if he's not even alive or something, and at the same time I see him, I see the monster coming toward me from the science wing.
First of all, it's big. No denying that. It's head brushes the ceiling, and these are ten-footers. Second of all, nobody else seems to notice it. High school students don't notice much, I'll grant you that. I mean, they don't pay any attention to me most of the time, and I think that's pretty odd. I would pay attention to me, if you get my drift. But they're ignoring this monster, who looks like the Pillsbury Dough Boy crossed with Klaatu's silvery robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still. It's not the first time I've seen a monster, so I kind of track him out of the corner of my eye while helping the Side-by-Side kid.
"You've got to back up, buddy," I say. He looks at me; there's drool on his chin, but his eyes are deep brown and lively. He slams the walker into the bricks again with an aluminum clang and makes a frustrated whine from the back of his throat. "The wall's not going anywhere, champ," I say.
Meanwhile the monster's getting closer. As I said, they're no novelty to me. During seventh grade, when I switched foster families three times in six months, I did a lot of drugs, mostly home grown or harvested, like moonweed and the other natural pharmaceuticals that grow in the flats and canyons south of town. At first I did them to get rid of monsters: stupid things that woke me at night in unfamiliar beds, fear-drenched and shaking, or what I think of as my amnesia dreams: of a life I've lost and can't quite remember--long, heartrendingly odd visions of too tall mountains and reddish skies that left me sobbing and drained, but the drugs brought their own multi-tentacled things to life, and I laid off them after a while. Flashbacks hit me periodically though; a pterodactyl above the school bus or shining teeth glinting from behind a stack of books at the library doesn't surprise me all that much. Still, this monster seemed particularly persistent, walking against the flow of kids who moved around it without acknowledging its presence.
I get this tingle in the back of my neck, and it suddenly seems really important to get the kid off the wall and sprint away from here. This isn't your typical paranoid panic--I get those too; the dough boy robot's definitely coming toward me. I get behind the Side-by-Side kid and grab the left side of the walker; it's slick with his sweat, and I pull him gently backward, away from the bricks. He shuffles his feet around and completes his right hand turn, but now he's going against the traffic; kids' faces look panicked as they realize that the Side-by-Side kid isn't going to stop coming forward. They dance around him, pressured by the crowd behind them in the eternal rush to beat the tardy bell.
"Coming through," I yell. "Cut a path!" Now we're heading away from the monster, but he's gaining. I don't get it. Most of the time my hallucinations reside in my peripheral vision and a good hard look banishes them. This one, however, takes a straight on stare and keeps coming. People detour around too, not responding to it directly; a nerdy girl in a pink sweater actually stops in front of it because it's right in her way, pushes her glasses up on her nose, fakes right then goes around it on the left, but she doesn't seem to have really seen it. It's as if she just got it in her head that she wanted to go one way, then changed her mind and went the other. Traffic's lightening up now this late in the passing period.
The Side-by-Side kid's into his rhythm: shuffle-shuffle-lift-and-klunk, and we're coming up to his room. He swings the walker to his right and heads for the door. The bell rings. Magically, the halls have emptied. He stops just before entering and twists back (to his right, of course) toward me, his chin slick with drool, his head tilted to the side; he gurgles something.
"What?" I say. I can feel the monster approaching, maybe twenty feet away. I'm itching to run.
He gurgles again, as if he's trying to push his voice through wet leaves, then it comes out clearly, "Thanks, K." His face grimaces. Maybe it was a smile. I don't know. He shuffle-klunks into the room, and I'm stunned, the monster forgotten for a second. He knew my name! No one in the hallway ever calls me by name. In classes sometimes, when I go, I hear it, mostly by the teachers who don't know where my nickname came from and call me that without trying to be cruel.
"Thanks, K," the boy had said. The empty hallway echoes with his voice. I hear it bouncing off the lockers behind me. It is the first time I feel good about being in that school.
Then the monster taps me on the shoulder. Its touch is warm and hard. Tap, tap. I turn. Up close, I can see my own reflection, wavy and distorted in its silver skin. I look up; its head is tilted down, as if it is studying me, but it doesn't have any eyes, no features at all; sort of like what you would get if you carved a robot monster out of silver soap, then showered with it a couple of times: no seams, no sharp edges, the short neck flowing smoothly from the rounded shoulders then widening into the Christmas ornament head, and it's suddenly clear that my monster is a robot or something in a silver suit, but I can't see past the mirrored faceplate.
Then, the death threat. It said, "Pack your things." The voice was real, I mean, it wasn't telepathy stuff, and it sounded like a pipe organ, high in register but more metal than organic. My flash backs had never spoken to me before.
I froze for a second. What could I do? A ten foot silver robot that nobody else can see has a hand on my shoulder and has told me to pack my things. It might as well have said, "Kiss your ass goodbye," or "Make peace with your maker." And, of course, the words, "Pack your things;" this is a blast from the past. How many times have I heard that before? It's straight out of memory, not that a monster had said it, but in one way or another, every school and foster home I've ever been in gave me the same message. Here though . . . I mean it's ten-feet tall . . . the words sound much darker. All the little hairs on the back of my neck are dancing.
I back up, and its hand slips off me. "No," I say. It's not clever repartee, but I'm a little shook. It speaks again and says, "I've come . . ."
"Screw you," I yell, twirling away from it and sprinting down the hall. My feet make slap-slap sounds all the way to the double doors out of the building and I never look back.
It was the last period of the day, so skipping out doesn't sound too bad to me. Besides, Geography has never been my favorite class. Long, boring lectures about Euro-Asian trade alliances and then pop quizzes on the agri-products of the rain forests. I've looked at the globe on the teacher's desk, and thought that if I were an alien I wouldn't land there.
I jog down the street toward my house. It's ninety degrees out; the sun's toasty warm on top of my head. The air's got that flat, early September anticipation in it, as if it's tired of being summer but not quite ready to give up to Fall. I like it hot, so bouncing away on the road's shoulder, sweat already pouring off my face feels good. Already the tightness in my gut, the fear in the hallway is fading, and I'm half convinced that nothing happened there. Ten foot tall robots, after all; even I have a tough time swallowing that.
And I'm kind of happy until I see this boy walking toward me on my side of the road. He's a middle-school kid--they get out before the high school does; he's holding his skateboard behind his back crossways with his arms locked around each end. It gives him a Bataan Death March pose, plodding in the shoulder's dust. Across the road and a little in front of him walking in the same direction is this girl, about the same age, lost in thought, eyes focussed on the ground. She's slender, wearing a lot of black, her books clenched to her chest. The boy's staring at her. I slow down. His look is clearly one of yearning. He wants her. A semi rumbles by between them. He doesn't blink or glance away. I pass on his left, only a couple of feet away; he never sees me. All his attention is locked on the girl; his face is tragic.
Suddenly, I'm by, and the guy's expression lingers in my mind, and I start crying. The whole thing's so sad and stupid--me stumbling down the road, tears mixing with sweat as I run. Nobody understands me when I talk about stuff like this. I mean, I've tried, but they give me looks as if I'm a dweeb and wander off. Here's this kid, following this girl he's probably wanted to talk to since fifth grade, and she doesn't even know he's alive. The tragedy is in the yearning; that's where I come in. I see in his face everything that I'm all about, constantly wanting to be a part of the world that doesn't know I'm there. It's my essential being: isolation. I told this to a counselor Social Services tied me into last year. After scribbling a note on a tiny pad she'd balanced on her knee, she said, "Have you tried joining a club, K?"
Want to hear a joke? It starts, "I'm from Social Services, and I'm here to help."
Which reminds me of my name. In second grade, I pretended to be a praying mantis for six days. I'd rotate my head to look at people, but I wouldn't move my shoulders or shift around; I kept my hands close to my chest, fingers out and limp. If I wanted something, like a pencil or a book, I'd stare at if for a few minutes, swaying a little side to side, then I'd pounce. It was a lot of fun, but after I'd been doing it for a while, Dan Clurge, who spoke with a thick, Southern accent, called me a "space kay-det." The "K" part stuck, and I got used to it after a while. When I change foster families, I like to take on their last name, so right now I'm K Coder, but I've been a host of others too. My favorite was K Beebee; that lasted seven months and my signature looked like a cattle brand: KBB.
I kill some time at the park, pitching rocks into the pond. That way it'll look as if I didn't leave school early. When I get to the foster house, I climb in the bedroom window so I won't have to talk to my foster mother, but she hears me anyway and yells, "It wouldn't kill you to use the back door, you know."
I don't say anything. She's thirty; her husband drives long haul routes and is gone most of the time, and she raises three kids of her own; they keep her hopping enough without dealing with me. When I'd first got there a few weeks ago with everything I own in a duffle bag dangling from my shoulder, she gave me the once over; I could tell she was mentally inventorying me. The hair probably bothered her: I'd shagged it out, dyed it henna-red and braided four tight strands that fell across my face. I'd shave it off--really I would: hair feels weird to me--but henna-red is in. I thought maybe the new age crowd might take me on, or the skateboarders; they seem the most open minded, but they didn't as always. Then my clothes didn't do anything for her either: flannel jacket, no buttons, no shirt underneath; an old pair of gray sweats I'd chopped at the knees, and blue running shoes, no socks. She shook her head and said, "What planet are you from?"
I wonder myself.
The evening comes. I stay in the room, watching the sun set all flaming and glorious but I'm still thinking about that kid walking down the street. By the time the first stars come out I've come to no conclusions. I'm wondering if I can sneak into the kitchen to get something to eat without anyone seeing me when my foster mother walks in. She doesn't say hi or anything.
"The school called and said you ditched your last class."
I can tell she's mad, but she's holding it. Her hands fist at her hips, clenching a bit of her skirt on both sides. She's probably a pretty woman if she didn't look so tired all the time: nice, high cheekbones. "We lose your support check from the government if you're dropped from the school, and I can't have that. You either straighten up and fly right or get your butt out of here. Is that clear?"
I don't know what to say to that because just as I open my mouth the silver monster pokes its head up in the window behind her. I figure it must be bending over or on its knees since the window's not that high. After a few seconds, my foster mother's rhetorical question hanging in the air, me not replying and probably looking like an idiot since I'm staring past her, she "humphs" disgustedly and stomps out of the room, slamming the door behind her that pops right back open because the latch is broke.
"Pack your things," it says in its pipe organ voice. "I've come to take you home." And I'm out of the room, heart pounding through the top of my head, dashing by my foster mother who's still walking down the hallway, and I don't stop running until I'm at the edge of town.
What does that mean: "I've come to take you home"? Is it like what the airlines call "Your final destination"? The happy hunting grounds? I don't like the sounds of it, whatever it means. Plus, it's a lyric from a Peter Gabriel song. My unconsciousness isn't dredging too deep to give me this nightmare.
Past the last street lights, the asphalt turns into fine gravel, ending up at the "Odd-Fellows" cemetery, where at the turn of the century they buried Jews, "citizens of color," and indigents. It's my favorite place even though it seems ghoulish considering that a hallucination is threatening to put me here permanently. A breeze picks up the smell of fresh cut grass from the Catholic cemetery across the road. Here, long weeds brush the tombstones.
I'm breathing hard, resting my back against Amelia Nurenberg's stone, thinking about what I'm going to do. See, I can live with a lot of stuff: kids who don't like me, teachers who only keep me in class because they have to, foster families one right after another. Those kinds of things bother me, but they're no biggie. Harder to explain annoyances get to me more: like feeling like my body doesn't fit me, or that sounds are too sharp, or that music rhythms are always off, or that none of the things I'm supposed to care about matter a fig and all the things I do care about nobody understands.
I'm at a breakpoint though when a hallucination won't go away. Something's got to change. Not the world, certainly. It's got all this weight on its side. I'm outnumbered, so it's got to be me. I snap a long strand of weed off the grave mound and put it between my teeth. The taste is sharp, like almond extract, and there's a kind of anesthetic effect because my lips go a little tingly. How can I change? Of course, that's the problem. Nobody wants to be insane. Nobody wants to be unhappy. But if I did change, if I could even do it, what would I become? Another of those blank-eyed students in the hall who can't see when a Side-by-Side kid needs some help? And what really gets me is what if they all have some inner block, like that kid who couldn't go left, except that theirs is psychological; that they all have some mental thing that they fetch up to in their head just as solid as that brick wall, and within their skulls there's this metal clanging going on all the time that they can't even hear anymore because they've learned to ignore it? Would I even want to be like that?
So I'm leaning on a gravestone, listening to the hiss of weeds and the nice, cool silence of the moon and stars, and all my options look untenable. Still, the monster is pushing the issue. It's a new variable in the equation. I don't know what it means, but things can't stay the same.
Then I see the monster coming toward me from the edge of the cemetery, bathed in moonlight, walking silently between the stones; it's like a ghost. It couldn't have found me; it must have a homing device or something. Hiding isn't an option. I'm trying not to breathe too loud, but I hear myself just the same: shaky and clear in the night air. I have this vision of it reaching me, rending me limb from limb, and in my fear I almost laugh because it suddenly occurs to me that the grim reaper is supposed to be darkly cloaked, carrying a scythe; not ten feet tall, silver and fat.
I hadn't thought of this before, but in the hallway it touched me. A hallucination that doesn't go away when you stare straight at it, that other people go around instead of through, that talks, doesn't change, and takes a reasonable amount of time to go from place to place isn't a hallucination at all. It reminds me of what somebody told me once: "If it swims like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck." The monster's real.
I can't stay, so I run, and the only place I have is the foster house, so I sneak in again and hide under the blankets like a little kid, convinced the whole time that the monster followed me back and is staring at me all night through that window that's too small for it to go through, waiting to say, "Pack your things. I've come to take you home."
In the morning, when I awoke, the monster wasn't at the window, but my foster mother sat on the edge of the bed as if she'd been there forever waiting for me to wake up. I pull up my blankets under my chin, not all that surprised to see her. The room's not mine, after all, and I've had this kind of speech before. I could have written her lines for her.
She starts with a sigh, her hands together in her lap, not looking at me. "I phoned my husband last night," she says. "And we talked about it for a long time." She twists her hands around, as if she's washing them. Her nails are neatly trimmed. No polish. "This isn't working out the way we hoped . . . you staying with us." She sighs again, and I think she's on the edge of crying. "It's not that we don't like you, or that you're a bad boy, really, but we think you might fit in better with another family."
I have heard it before, but I still feel small. No different than when I was five or six or seven. I'm thinking, if this were a movie script, I'd reach out and hug her and call her mom and all would be forgiven, or I'd get angry and yell names, but I don't really know her. She doesn't know me. It's just awkward.
"It's o.k.," I say.
She sits for another minute, never looks at me, and with a final sigh, stands and leaves the room.
I don't want to cause her any problems. It's not her fault, so I put the clothes I brought with me into my duffle bag along with a couple of books that I've carried around for years, and head for school. I figure that I'll go to Social Services after classes and talk to them about a new placement. Most of the time they move pretty fast on foster parent's requests, since Social Services doesn't want to lose them as residence sites, and I figure that I could be in a new place tonight.
Jogging's tough carrying a bag, so I walk. Everything looks empty. The cottonwoods along the way seem to be barely hanging onto their leaves, even though they haven't started turning color yet. The sound of tires on the road sounds muffled and dead. I don't hear a single bird the whole way.
Then I'm not in my first class for five minutes before I get a note to come to the assistant principal's office, and ten minutes after that, I'm expelled for too many unexcused absences.
So this all sounds pretty tragic, right? I'm sitting outside of the school by the bus loop, my duffle bag between my legs; these tears are just rolling down my cheeks, and I don't care. School's stupid. I never fit in there, and it shouldn't be a big deal that the foster family wants me to move on, but, still, I'm crying, feeling as if the whole world has a plan for itself, and I'm not part of it. I'm a minority of one, an alien, a special interest group that no one's interested in. My whole life's spinning in my head, and I'm half thinking that if I could throw up I might feel a little better.
It seems like a long time, but it wasn't, because I stop sniffling when, like yesterday, two things happen at once: first, a gleam out on the football field catches my eye. It's the silver monster, and this time it's not moving; he's just standing there facing my direction. And he's not alone either; a smaller version stands behind him, and a tiny one, like maybe four feet tall is running around the smaller one's feet. It's truly an arresting sight. I almost have to laugh.
Then the last bus of the day pulls up to the stop; it's the Side-by-Side program bus. Some of the kids come out the regular door by themselves; some need assistance, while a wheelchair lift in the back is unloading some others. I've watched this other days. The process can take ten minutes.
So I'm watching the bus unload, and I'm watching the monsters. In the clear light of the morning, standing in the middle of the short-cropped green of the football field, the largest robot looks a lot less threatening, almost pretty. I've lost the hollow spot already; whatever happens is going to happen. When something ends, something else begins. Once again, I'm on the edge of a new chapter in my life.
Then, the guy that I aided yesterday gets out of the bus. A teacher helps him down and holds him under one arm while the driver hands out the walker. The kid concentrates mightily getting his hands placed right, and I realize that he must stay up in that walker mostly by force of will because his legs look useless. I wonder why he doesn't use a wheelchair, but I admire the effort. It takes him two or three tries to get moving. He leans back to get the walker off the ground, then kind of falls forward to move the walker a few inches. It's an amazing display.
He spots me, jerks the walker to his right, and starts my direction, a big grin on his face. His muscles bunch under his shirt; he lifts and comes forward. Shuffle-shuffle. All his motions are focussed, intense, irresistible, and I realize, nothing will stop him. If he miscalculates, he'll turn a 360 to get back on track. If he falls down, he'll figure a way to get up. I think he knows who he is. He and his walker work together to get him wherever he's going, and it doesn't matter to him that no one in the halls knows him. He's moving in his own way, and that's enough.
That's enough, I think; then I do laugh, because it's not. I admire him because he looks so independent, but he's not. Teachers help him, his parents help him; heck, even I helped him. And that's what I was trying to do, bang my own walker against a wall and not ask for help from anybody. You can't do it on your own. You've got to have help or you'll go crazy. Anyone could tell you that.
He reaches me. He strains in his throat for a second, then says, "Hi, K."
It's beautiful. I've put it all together. The bus gleams bright yellow in this world's sun. This world's sun, not mine. Mine is some place else; it has to be. Behind the bus, the cottonwoods seem perkier, more alive and ready to soak up the rays. The boy's face shines in the light of his happiness. He got to me. He said hi. He found someone who would help, and it was me.
I'm not sure what to say to him, but I know what I've got to do. I've got to find my help. I've got to go where I belong.
I drape my duffle bag over the front of his walker. The silver monster had said, "Pack your things." Out in the football field, he waits. I'm going to it. Hidden in the forest, or maybe hovering above must be his space ship. I'll bet they're from some place like my dreams, where the mountains are too tall and the sky a dusky shade of red. My rescue has finally arrived.
"You can keep my things," I say. "They've come to take me home."
This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy.