“G’morning kiddo,” James says instantly regretting it. The last time he called his son something other than “Hey You” or JC was last year when JC missed curfew.
“What’s good about the first day of school, Dad?” JC mumbles as he walks into the kitchen. “I didn’t expect to see you before I left this morning. I went to bed after midnight and you still weren’t home. I thought last night’s job was supposed to be quick.”
“Yeah sorry about that. Ran a bit later than I thought it would. Want some breakfast?” James holds up a pan with some burnt goo mildly resembling scrambled eggs.
“Ummm…I guess. I was just gonna nuke something. Since when do you make breakfast?” JC asks. He tries to hide his astonishment, but his eyes are open way too wide.
“Oh, well, I haven’t been to sleep yet and figured you might want it for your first day. Got to make a good first impression,” James says with too much energy.
He moves awkwardly around the stove. The spatula in his hand flops back and forth between too many pans. Eggs and grease slop all over the stove. It looks like more than a few shells will end up on the plate.
“So anyway, why’d you pick this place to start cooking? We had that huge kitchen back in St. Louis and you never touched anything in it,” JC says with a smirk and sits down at the kitchen table near the door.
“It’s not that small. We’ve had much smaller places. Get ready, it’s almost done.”
JC looks around at the small box of a room with its terrible yellow-colored walls spotted with age. The room is so small it makes JC want to get to school, which is saying something. It’s much smaller than the rest of the house. But at least it doesn’t feel stale like those huge rentals they usually live in with their white walls and breakable decorations. They always seemed more like a psych ward than a home.
“Doesn’t matter I guess. My room is big enough. Got the entertainment center set up last night. And the living room looks great. I like the sofa you rented,” JC says with no response from his dad. He looks down at the table and picks at a big scratch in the finish. “So how did it go last night anyway?”
“JC, you know I can’t tell you about my job. We went over this yesterday. Security clearance and all that. It’s best if you just don’t ask. We’ll unpack the boxes tonight when you get home from school. Now eat.”
With that, James shoves a huge plate of burnt eggs and bacon in front of JC. He eats what he can with as much gratitude as he can muster. An egg shell crunches between his teeth, and he finally gives up. He drops his fork on the plate with a loud clink and stands up. He grabs his bag and walks toward the door, but stops abruptly. A feeling that he should say something hangs in the air. But feelings are not discussed in this house. Every conversation should have “Yes, sir” or “No, sir” as its main components.
He stands near the doorway with his shoulders slumped and his hand on the knob. No words will come out. He turns the knob and starts to walk out, all the while saying a little prayer in his head that his dad will keep doing the dishes in the washtub sink. He takes one step out and the sound of his dad’s voice nearly makes him trip over his own feet.
“Look son, I’m sorry. I know I should have come home last night like I said but sometimes being an adult means you have to do things that you don’t want to. I know some day you’ll understand all this. Hopefully someday soon. Anyway, Happy Birthday. I have to leave early this afternoon for work. I’m going to leave your present here on the table.”
It hits him like a hammer. His birthday. His birthday explains his dad’s motivation more than a sudden want to be a good father. How could he possibly forget? Most kids look at their sixteenth birthday as a rite of passage. They get their driver’s license or have a huge party to try to get on some stupid reality TV show. JC’s license already burns a hole in his pocket. He got it a state or two ago at when he turned 15. And if he has a big party with a bunch of TV cameras, they would be shooting an empty room because he does not know a soul in this town. A mix of sadness and embarrassment burns through his face. His whole body feels hot. Maybe the dishes are enough of a distraction that his dad won’t notice.
The only birthday JC can really remember was in Phoenix, AZ. He turned ten that day. It was 80 degrees outside. The hottest birthday he ever had. His dad took him to see a baseball game. He can’t remember the score or what teams were playing, but he remembers the feeling of being there with his dad at the park. He got a hot dog and a big soda, probably the biggest his dad ever let him have. But, of course he spilled it all over the people sitting in front of him. His dad was not pleased and he ended up having to go to the merchandise table to get the people new t-shirts. There were no toys, just his dad. Since then it has been year after year of gadgets and electronics for presents. All of them left on the table with twenty dollars for a pizza. It looks like this year will be no different, except he might get extra cheese this time.
“Um thanks. I…um…gotta go,” JC says, contemplating what piece of electronic garbage he will get this year.
His dad stands at the sink with a dirty plate in his hand and a dumbfounded look on his face. JC can feel the blood rushing to his face and his mouth hanging open as wide as it will go. He must think he’s raising a freak, JC thinks to himself.
JC stumbles out the door. The air outside feels cool on his burning face. He needs the eight block walk to school after that disaster in the kitchen. The redness subsides from his face at the thought of his father’s absence tonight. At least I won’t have to explain that one, he thinks and sighs heavily.
He walks down the driveway and passes the hedge separating their drive from their neighbor’s. He has never lived in a place quite like this. There are houses of all different shapes and sizes. Some are old, two story wood houses with very ornate decorations carved into the upper trim. Others look like plain ranch style houses with white or tan siding. Still others are barely a step up from what JC had seen in a camp ground out west. Despite the mash up of different styles of houses, it really does seem to work. The little ranch style house they are renting does not seem out of place next to the large, vibrantly-painted, two-story house on the other side of the hedge.
He turns at the end of the driveway and heads up the street toward the school. All the backyards are huge in this town. Most of the places he and his dad lived in felt like the houses were right on top of each other. Sometimes at night he could hear what the neighbors were watching on TV or what fight they decided to have before sleeping on opposite sides of the bed. Here there are a few above-ground pools that have been emptied in preparation for the coming winter. They might not be in use, but the trampolines he has seen look like they are still ready to go for the rest of the fall.
As he walks, he decides to try to figure out who lives in all these houses. Not the best way to pass the time but his IPOD is sitting on the kitchen table–forgotten in his haste to leave. The first one he comes upon is a very ornate Victorian house up the block. It must belong to an artist or an old hippie because no one else could live in a house painted green with blue, yellow and red trim. Right next door is a large house that looks like it might have two or three apartments in it. A few rusted vehicles sit out front next to bikes that were tossed on their sides by riders in a hurry to make it inside. He keeps it up, house by house, time passing with each guess.
JC looks around and does not recognize any of the buildings around him. Lost in thought, he must have missed his turn to the school. He pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket and checks the street names scribbled on it. None of the signs he can see match anything on the crumpled note. A few blocks away he sees what must be the downtown area. He can see the gas station sign he and his dad passed coming into town. He heads that way to get directions to the school.
Downtown is not a huge place. The strip is filled with a bunch of small office buildings. Each has one store front with owners operating mom and pop shops. This downtown is old and well-maintained, but not thriving. Many of the buildings stand empty with signs from closed businesses still above the large front windows.
The gas station stands at the end of the line of buildings. It’s clear from a glance that the station is also a repair shop. The newer building looks desperately out of place. A number of cars sit out front and most look drivable. Looks like at least one downtown business owner is doing alright for himself.
JC hurries across the two lane main street that cuts through downtown. He is glad traffic is light so he does not have to wait on the corner. According to his dad, a lot of people like to travel this road to avoid the highway. Today it looks like everyone has chosen high speeds over scenery.
He starts to shiver as the wind bites him through his hoodie. The weather is turning rapidly. Worse than the cold will be showing up late to class. It’s bad enough when the teachers make you stand up and introduce yourself, it is worse when you walk in late and everyone stares at you before you get the chance to find a seat. He hustles across the small parking area. There is no movement outside of the gas station.
He pulls open the door and sticks his head inside. No one is behind the counter and the bell on the door doesn’t seem to have alerted anyone in the back. He steps through the door and sees the owner does not make a living selling snacks. Anyone purchasing food at this place probably ends up at the hospital on the west side of town. This place is not owned by one of those huge companies like the ones out by the highway. The ones you would actually feel comfortable going into if you didn’t live in the area.
There are no fancy advertisements asking you to try the newest soda flavor or buy one get one free bags of chips. A rack stands in the corner with maps and car magazines on it. There is a cooler in the other corner with a few bottles of soda and a rack behind the counter with an assortment of tobacco products.
He walks back by the cooler to a small office with the door standing open. A small desk pushed in the corner takes up the whole room and is covered in dirty receipts. The food supply seems rivaled only by the owner’s book keeping skills. JC tries not to touch anything around him for fear of being smeared with grease.
“Hello? Anybody working today? I’m just looking for some directions.”
“Yup son, there is. What can I do for ya?” comes a voice from behind him. JC whips around, nearly yelling.
A burly man stands in the door leading to the repair shop near the front of the store. Light streaming from the surprisingly clean windows hinders JC’s view. Despite the bright light, JC can tell an older man fills the doorway. His large gut looks like it might pop the zipper of his mechanic’s coveralls any minute. His bushy white hair sticks out of a greasy rag he tied around his head.
JC moves closer, out of the blinding light. He sees a large scar stands out on the man’s face. Despite his best efforts to ignore it, it draws JC’s eye. The scar rises from his face like a small snake crawling from his right eye to the opposite corner of his mouth. JC’s mind races with possibilities for its origin but knows he has to say something to avoid another disastrous social incident.
“I, uh– I need directions to the high school.”
“New in town, huh?” the man asks as he tries to wipe the grease from his fat stubby fingers. He is only successful in smearing it.
“Yeah. My dad and I moved in about two days ago. I really need directions, or I’m going to be late,” JC says. His face strains with agitation.
He hopes other people in town listen a little better than this guy. He struggles to deal with people who have no sense of urgency. But it goes with the territory. Most people living in a small town move at a pace slower than anywhere else. Maybe it’s because it only takes fifteen minutes to drive from one end of town to the other or that you can leave for a movie five minutes before the previews start and still have the best seats.
“Figured. Not easy ta get lost in this place. Only people who do are new or an idiot. Anyway, name’s Chuck Glanville. Nice to meet ya. And who are ya?” The man sticks out his grease covered hand. JC reluctantly takes it. The strength in the grip surprises him.
“JC Mather…look sir I’m going to be really late.”
“Mather, huh? I think I met yer dad the other da–”
“Look sir, I realize you aren’t in a huge hurry here, but I am. I’m going to be late and I really hate having to go into a class and be introduced as the new kid.” This guy isn’t hearing a single thing coming out of his mouth. It’s like talking to a brick wall or a punching bag. JC turns to leave giving up on getting any directions.
“Okay son, settle down. Was jus’ tryin’ ta be friendly. All ya need to do is walk three blocks that way and turn right. School will be another two blocks down. Yer maybe five minutes away.”
When he points out the window, JC sees for the first time that Chuck Glanville is missing a good portion of his right hand. He has the first two fingers and thumb, but the rest is just a flat stump. Looks like this guy was in one heck of a fight with a lawn mower blade. JC fights the urge to ask what happened, but his raised eyebrows give him away. Anyone who looks like this has to have something more interesting to talk about than directions.
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Genre – YA Supernatural Thriller
Rating – PG13
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