“Truth, Fiction, or Both? Confessions of a Horror Writer” By Howard Odentz
Writers write what we know. Even if we’re writing about ghosts, or monsters, or the disturbing woman with a peeping Tom fetish who lives two blocks away and only walks in the middle of the night wearing elbow lights, our best stories always carry a grain of truth.
I’m no different.
I often use my past experiences in my stories. Sometimes I even use yours if what you’ve told me in passing is interesting, bizarre, or even humorous enough to weave into one of my tales.
My newest novel, WHAT WE KILL, premiering on the very appropriate Friday the 13th of this October, is filled with memories of my past. The setting is my childhood town. The stories are half-truths that I have gathered over the years, and the characters, well, let’s just say that every author has a bit of him or herself in every character that we create.
With that in mind, I’d like to share the following Halloween short, THE INVITATION. I went through great lengths to change the names to protect the innocent. It would be lovely to say that it’s a work of fiction, but that would be lying. However, I will tell you this. I am not a woman. My dog’s name is Darwin, not Newton, and using bubbling pots in the bowels of a basement to conjure spells is so last century.
The rest, barring any annoying deaths that may have occurred, is pretty much the truth. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
It had been just shy of three months since Heather and Daniel moved into Autumn Village, their active, over fifty-five community. Neighbors seemed friendly and cordial, and the dog walkers and exercise buffs bonded over their daily constitutionals.
Carefully, as she walked Newton, her little black pug, Heather gently poked and prodded during polite conversation to see if there were any others like them in their community—eighty houses strong—that encompassed Maple Lane, Copper Hollow, and Underwood Court.
“I think we’re alone here,” she confessed to Daniel over dinner one evening.
“You never know,” he replied. “Why don’t you find out?”
Heather thought about her husband’s words that night while they held hands and watched the latest on the presidential race. Daniel’s blood pressure sometimes raced when he listened to the candidates, but Heather always had a special brew on hand to make sure his ticker was kept in check.
They were by no means old. At a respectable fifty-seven years young each, they were in that sweet spot in life where they had enough money to do what they wanted and still agile enough to enjoy it.
So it happened that Heather decided to have a party. Halloween was coming and a fun, costumed celebration would be just the thing that would draw people out. Early one morning, after she decided to try something rather mundane that she had never done before, Heather sat at her work table with her quill and ink, and penned an invitation:
Maple, Copper, Underwood
Be afraid or so ye should
Through the pumpkins and the mums
Something wicked this way comes.
On the thirty-first at six
Join us for some treats and tricks
Maple Lane is where we’ll be
For a costumed jamboree
Then she added the address and time on the bottom of the invitation and as a lark wrote:
RSVP–We need to know how many coffins to build.
Heather smiled. The invitation was cute and she hoped people would come.
After she painstakingly hand-wrote 80 more and took Newton one morning for a walk so that she could place her handiwork in mailboxes, she hummed a tune to herself. Maybe Daniel was right. Maybe a party would be just the thing to find others like themselves in their community.
The responses started coming in immediately. People were delighted about the upcoming affair, and the subject of costumes became a topic of conversation all around. Shortly thereafter, Heather received a note. It was in her mailbox, posted and stamped, with a little flower embossed on the card.
Dear Young People, it said. It is nice of you to plan an activity, but we are a senior group and many of us are old enough to be your parents. We have suffered losses, so, wanting to know how many “coffins” to prepare was in poor taste and upsetting – Anonymous.
Heather was horrified and immediately burst into tears. How could someone think her so cruel? How could someone think her so heartless and insensitive when all she wanted to do was create a cute invitation for their upcoming party? After all, coffins, skeletons, and the like were nothing more than decorations for the holiday.
Newton sat at her feet. He looked up into her eyes, completely understanding her anguish. Heather stared down at her little dog with the deep, dark eyes and knew what she had to do.
The old ways were best. Trying to be nice and share polite conversation to discover common interests was for more ordinary people then she and Daniel. It was time she did things the right way.
That evening, around a bubbling pot in their new basement, Heather and Daniel stood in dark robes, chanting ancient words as they tore bits of the nasty card into even smaller bits and sprinkled them into the stew.
In short order, they heard the front door above their heads quietly open. Presently, two other couples in their community joined them in the basement. They had felt the magic emanating from Daniel and Heather’s home and were drawn to it like willing moths to a flame.
With Newton watching in approval, the six of them chanted and worked their incantations until they all collapsed, exhausted, and spent.
“It’s so nice that you’re part of the neighborhood,” one couple said as they took their leave.
“We can’t wait for your party,” said the other.
Little Newton walked them out, wagged his nubby tail, equally as happy that they moved to the new village and were not alone.
That night, after the spell had worked its charms, an ambulance was called to the small, over fifty five community and a resident was taken away, never to return. As Heather and Daniel stood in their doorway watching the flashing lights disappear into the distance, she put her head on his shoulder and whispered, “Just a little glitch. In the end, I think our move here was the right decision.”
“I knew you’d fix things,” he said as he squeezed her tight and Newton yipped at their feet. “You always do.”
BIO: Howard Odentz releases his fifth book, WHAT WE KILL, on Friday the 13th of October.
Set in a reimagined version of Odentz’s childhood home, this taught thriller peels back the layers of a seemingly idyllic Western Massachusetts town to expose what lies beneath.
In WHAT WE KILL, four life-long friends wake in the woods overlooking the highway without any memory of how they got there. One has a triangle burned into his forearm. One has lost her pants. One is missing his glass eye and the last is covered in blood. As images of big black eyes and the cries of sheep haunt their addled brains, the town fire alarm and police sirens can be heard in the distance. What is happening to them? What is happening to their pristine town? What’s more, why can’t they remember any of it?
WHAT WE KILL continues Odentz’s trend of sowing a more mature path than his previous works. Intended for older teens and adults, this thriller explores the psychological impact of four friends who find themselves in a seemingly impossible situation, as well as a town that is thrown into chaos.
For the past few years, Odentz has found success in the young adult and emerging adult thriller and chiller markets. His most recent release was the extended short, SNOW, about an epic snowstorm in October that blankets the fictional Mount Tom Regional High School. It is available as a free download on Amazon. Other works include the 2015 Ariana Award winner and Epic Award Finalist DEAD (a LOT), it’s sequel, WICKED DEAD, the 2016 Epic Award Finalist BLOODY BLOODY APPLE, and a fascinating, twisted, and sometimes funny collection of twenty-six short stories about the youngest deviants among us called LITTLE KILLERS: A TO Z.
As for his subject matter, Odentz has always turned to the mysterious in writing. “I know what scares you, because I know what scares me,” he says. “Suspenseful writing is my comfort zone.” He does, however, acknowledge that his writing is sometimes considered darkly humorous, as well.
For more about Howard’s work, go to www.howardodentz.com.
Read an excerpt from What We Kill by Howard Odentz:
IT STARTS LIKE THIS.
“WEST? ARE YOU awake? Weston?” A far off voice calls my name but I’m nestled in clouds. I don’t want to open my eyes.
“Holy Christ,” Anders gasps. Anders Stephenson is my best friend. I’ve always known him. He lives across the street in the persimmon-colored house. I only know the name of the paint because his mother goes out of her way to tell everyone she used a fancy color.
Mrs. Stephenson is typical Meadowfield.
“What . . . what’s happening?” I hear someone else cry. That’s Marcy Cole. Marcy is beautiful. She has curly auburn hair and blue eyes. She also has a thing for Anders that’s been brewing since the third grade. As cool as we all are, I don’t think that Marcy and Anders are ever going to happen. When we graduate next spring, Marcy is going to be a mess. Anders wants to take a year off and go visit relatives in Norway. I’m hoping I’m in college by then. I don’t want to be left behind to pick up little Marcy pieces.
That puzzle is a little too abstract for me.
“Earth to Weston Kahn. Earth to Weston Kahn,” Robbie Myers says. “Come in Weston Kahn.” Myers is my other best friend. Me, Anders, Marcy and Myers have all grown up in sight of each other on gently sloping Primrose Lane. Myers is kind of a mess in a nerdy way. If I were to point fingers, I’d point them at his mother, but we all have our little issues.
No one is perfect, even in a town as perfect as Meadowfield.
“What the hell?” cries Anders. I slit open my eyes so little that they might as well not be open at all.
The sun is shining overhead, fractured in a zillion pieces.
We’re in the woods.
“Shit,” Anders cries again but this time he sounds almost hysterical.
“Oh my God,” gasps Marcy. Her voice is husky. “Is that blood?”
What does she mean, blood? Where’s blood? Who’s bleeding?
“West?” It’s Myers again. His black hair and Chiclet teeth momentarily blot out the sky. He’s leaning over me and his hot breath is assaulting my nostrils. “I think . . . oh no . . . I think Weston might be dead.”
I take a deep breath. “Shut up, Myers,” I murmur. “I’m not dead.” I open my eyes a little more. Only then do I realize that my arm is stinging. The more sleep falls away, the more insistent the pain becomes. I squeeze my eyes shut and feel tears dripping down my cheeks.
“It is blood.” Marcy chokes out, and this time she starts to sob.
There is so much promise in letting myself slip away again, but I know that I can’t. Something’s not right. As a matter of fact, something is very, very wrong.
I sigh, reach up and push Myers away. “Move,” I tell him through a mouth that might as well be filled with cold oatmeal, and struggle to get to my elbows because my arm really does hurt.
“Sorry,” says Myers. “I thought you were dead.” He leans back on his bony knees. There’s something weird about how Myers looks, other than his scrawniness and his dorky tee-shirt that says ‘Master Baiter’ with a picture of a worm on a hook, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. My head is
all full of cotton. Besides, any thoughts of Myers fade away as soon as my eyes begin to focus.
We are in the woods, and everything is all too familiar. This is Prince Richard’s Maze, the stretch of forest at the edge of Meadowfield that towers over the highway and the Connecticut River beyond. My fingers dig into the ground and October leaves crunch beneath my hands.
Marcy is still crying and Myers starts to cry, too. I hate when he does that. No wonder he gets picked on so much at school.
“Why is there blood?” Marcy blubbers, and this time Myers joins her.
He says, “Anders, there’s so much. What . . . what did you do?”
I roll to one side and wince My arm stings like a son of a bitch, but it doesn’t even occur to me to look down and find the source of the pain. I’m too busy gawking at Anders.
There’s blood alright. There’s blood everywhere, but it’s only on him. His blond hair and square jaw are dripping with it. His tall, ropy, basketball frame, covered only in a tee-shirt and jeans, is sloshed in red. Anders looks like Carrie White—not the new one but the old one played by that girl with the stringy hair and the flat face who is older than my mother now.
Anders is painted in blood.
Myers and Marcy are crying, and we’re in Prince Richard’s Maze, but I don’t know why.
“My eye,” Myers suddenly screams. “Where’s my eye?” I know that sounds like a bizarre thing to say, but Myers has a glass eye. I can’t pull my muddied gaze away from Anders because of all the blood, but suddenly I realize why Myers looks weirder than usual. He’s missing his eye. All that’s left is a droopy, crusty hole in his head. He always forgets to clean it out and it’s gross. “Shit,” he cries. “My mother will friggin’ kill me if I lose it again.”
“What’s happening?” blurts out Anders with his hands held in front of him and the whites of his eyes popping out of his crimson colored face.
“I don’t know,” I say, then wince. The stinging, burning sensation on my arm becomes so insistent that I simply have to look. I glance down and my eyes grow wide. There is a tiny triangle, way smaller than a penny, burned into my forearm. The skin around its edges is puffy and pale.
“Marcy?” whispers Anders. “Marcy?” I’ve never heard Anders Stephenson sound so small or so weak. He’s not weak at all. He’s our jock buddy. He’s the one who sticks up for us when nobody else does. “Marcy?” he says once more, but his words are barely a whisper.
“Um, Marcy?” says Myers through his tears. “Where . . . where are your pants?”
I look back up and see Myers without his eye, Anders covered in blood, and Marcy wearing only a torn top, dirty panties, and no shoes.
For that matter, so does Myers.
We’re in some sort of dream. We have to be. I must be dreaming and at any moment I’m going to wake up. If I’m not, there is no reason why the four of us should be in The Maze.
There’s no reason for so much blood.
Suddenly, a long, deep wail pierces the forest and we all look up. The otherworldly siren is the Meadowfield fire alarm. The sound cuts through town like a sickly fog horn, unable to be ignored. The alarm blares away for a good thirty seconds, and Myers starts hiccupping in the middle of crying. He’s hyperventilating. Myers is a junior volunteer for the town fire department, but he’s not going to be able to show up for the alarm because he can’t find his eye.
Anders is covered in blood.
Marcy’s lost her pants.
I have a burning triangle on my forearm.
What’s more, if this isn’t a dream, then I can’t for the life of me remember how we ended up in the The Maze.
Frankly, I don’t even remember last night.
What the hell is going on?
“GIVE ME YOUR sweatshirt,” I tell Myers. The gray fleece sleeves are tied around his thin waist because it’s been so warm lately. This October’s schizophrenic weather has made our little corner of the world the poster child for global warming. The temperature has topped 70 degrees most days this past week when the thermometer should really be hovering in the forties.
“Why?” he sniffs and rubs one dirty arm across his face, which is getting increasingly hard to look at. His fleshy eye socket seems huge even though it’s not. I force myself to ignore the hole. Instead, I tilt my chin toward Marcy, and he silently mouths, ‘Oh.’
Myers quickly unties the sleeves and tosses his sweatshirt to me. I get up, my head still reeling and my arm burning, and stagger over to Marcy, who is totally lost in a puddle of curly auburn hair and tears. Her hands are trying to cover as much of herself as possible. Even in the early morning light I can see that her cheeks are burning red.
“Here,” I say, and toss Myers’s sweatshirt in her lap.
Marcy says something under her breath about how she’s mortified. I try not to roll my eyes. I’m not even sure I have the strength to roll them, anyway. Every square inch of my body aches, and the pain in my arm is searing.
“You’ll be fine,” I tell her. Being mortified isn’t a permanent condition. Besides, she doesn’t have anything we haven’t seen before, and now there’s a more urgent issue.
Anders is becoming totally unglued.
First he starts shaking. Then he climbs to his feet and takes off running with his arms stretched out so maybe he won’t get any more blood on himself.
“Stop him,” I snap at Myers, which is like telling a Chihuahua to stop a mastiff.
“Wait, what?” he stammers as he watches Anders barrel through the fall foliage away from us.
“Damnit,” I cry and try my best to follow after him, still imagining my knees rubbing together as I run, which they don’t do anymore. I know where he’s going but I don’t have time to explain to Myers or Marcy. She’s too busy holding a pity party for herself.
I dive into the woods after Anders, but he’s fast. Anders has always been fast. He’s always been the captain of this or a varsity player of that. I’m not a jock. People like me aren’t jocks.
“Anders, you prick. Stop already.” What I really want to say is ‘Anders, you prick. Don’t let anyone see you. If you’re seen covered in blood then we’re all royally screwed.’
Thankfully, we know The Maze. We’ve played in these woods for years, even after the town put up the ‘No Loitering’ sign and hung a chain across the entrance so that desperate, horny men wouldn’t park their cars inside at night.
Finally, I burst through the brush onto one of the well-worn paths. Although I’m really groggy, I’m pretty sure this one is Little Loop. Big Loop is wider and goes all the way out to the bald patch that looms over the highway. We used to watch fireworks there with our families on the Fourth of July. Little Loop only goes as far as Turner Pond.
A few yards in front of me I find Anders’ bloody tee-shirt in a ball on the ground. I scoop it up and keep following Little Loop. About a hundred feet farther down are his bloody jeans.
From somewhere up ahead I hear a splash.
When I finally catch up to him with my lungs burning deep inside, I find Anders chest deep in
Turner Pond, naked, except for his socks and underwear. He’s scrubbing at himself with his fingernails, probably doing more harm than good.
“Get it off me,” he keeps wailing over and over like he’s being sucked dry by a leech.
“Stop it,” I cry. I want to wade into the water after him, but I’m not the kind of guy who does stuff like that. Anders is the one who does stuff like that.
Not now, though. Now he’s just a mess.
“Get it off me,” he screams again. “Get it off me.”
Suddenly, Myers is at my side, eyeless and a little clueless. I think his head is all filled with pudding like mine. Seconds later, there’s a blur and a spray of water.
Marcy has run right into the pond and splashes her way out to Anders.
“Anders,” she cries and grabs him by both shoulders. “Anders, STOP.”
Just like that, Anders falls to pieces right in Marcy’s arms. She’s probably dreamt about this happening every night for years, but not like this.
Never like this.
Anders sobs like only a guy can sob when something truly awful has happened. He sobs like guys only do once in their lifetimes.
Marcy pulls Anders to her and buries her beautiful, curly head in his collar bone. He wraps his arms around her and holds on tight like if he lets go, he’ll plummet to the bottom of Turner Pond and then keep on going, sinking into the muck, and the filth, and the secrets way down deep.
“Shhh,” she whispers to him. “It will be okay. Honest. Everything will be okay.”
Meanwhile, back on shore, Myers stares at Anders and Marcy in the water with his mouth hanging open. “Some things you can’t ever unsee,” he murmurs, his face slowly going pale.
“Really?” I say to him. “Seriously?”
He slowly nods his bobble head up and down on his turkey neck, with his black hair and his ”Master Baiter” tee-shirt.
“That’s the best I got,” he says. Then, like a total douche, he quickly reaches up and rubs his good eye with his fist. “Wait,” he stutters. “I think my other eye just went blind.”
MEADOWFIELD ONCE appeared in a joke book about preppies as one of the hundred most desirable suburbs in the country, but that was decades ago. Still, our town—along with Longmeadow, Littleham, and a few other places where there are enclaves of McMansions—is prime real estate in Western Massachusetts.
Everyone here wears plaid and untucked oxford shirts. Most families own golden retrievers, big black labs, or hypoallergenic designer dogs.
Some of us are Jewish, like me and Myers, but being Jewish these days has turned from a religion to just another reason to get gifts at the holidays like all our non-Jewish friends.
Most of our parents have been divorced at least once, and they all think they’re cool by telling us if we’re going to drink or get stoned, we should do it at home. They won’t judge.
We all go to college after we graduate high school unless there’s some fancy-ass reason not to, like Anders has about going to Norway for a year.
We all perform community service and think of our grades in terms of percentiles.
Bad things don’t ever happen in places like Meadowfield, or at least that’s what everyone likes to think, but it isn’t true.
Bad things are happening right now.
The four of us sit next to Turner Pond in the morning chill, all shivering. Marcy has put on Myers’ sweatshirt, but now her panties are soaked from the pond. Anders is curled in a ball, mostly naked except for his wet underwear and socks. His splotchy sneakers are almost buried in dead leaves at the water’s edge. He won’t put on his bloody clothes. He won’t even look at them.
His head is in Marcy’s lap, and he’s staring into space like it’s a tangible thing. Behind his vacant gaze is complete darkness, and I’m afraid for my friend.
Marcy keeps rubbing his back, her face empty, too. Meanwhile, Myers can’t stop staring at them, and I want to say something really juvenile like ‘take a picture, it will last longer,’ but I don’t because there’s a dense fog in my head, and I’m not entirely sure any of this is real.
Finally, Myers reaches up and wipes his droopy socket.
“I have to find my eye,” he murmurs like he’s already been yelled at for losing it by his mother.
“Needle. Haystack,” I say. “It’s probably in the woods, and if it’s in the woods, it’s gone.”
“Pffft. All gone.” Anders whispers, not moving his head from Marcy’s lap. Goose bumps pop up on my arm. I’m almost positive he’s not talking about Myers’ eye at all. He’s talking about something else, like childhood or innocence.
“Shhh,” says Marcy and runs her fingers through Anders’ blond hair. Unless there’s something I don’t know about, this is the first time she’s ever had access to it. “Sorry,” she whispers to Myers about his eye but all our words fall on deaf ears.
Myers deflates, even though there isn’t much of him there to begin with. He looks even scrawnier than before. Finally, he turns to me and motions to my arm. “Let me see it again.”
This time I actually do roll my eyes. “Whatever,” I say and hold out my left arm. The new isosceles scar is still burning, and I wince. Myers leans in and stares at the puffy little triangle, the one that I’m never going to be able to explain.
He whistles. “That’s what they do,” he says. “They mark you.”
“Oh my God, shut up already,” I snap at him.
“It’s true,” he says. “The government wants you to think it’s not, but it’s true.”
“Seriously,” I tell him. “You need to stop.” I don’t want to hear any more about Myers’ obsession. Aliens don’t exist. They don’t abduct people in the night and stick magic wands up their butts. They don’t leave strange scars on their victims after wiping their memories.
That’s only on TV, and it’s not true.
Marcy’s eyes fill up with tears but she refuses to blink them away. Instead, she lets them overflow and run down her cheeks. “I don’t remember anything,” she says. Anders is silent. He continues his creepy, blank stare. His GQ face is as hard as a brick.
“I don’t either,” I grimace.
Myers opens up his mouth, presumably to drive home his alien theory, which would make so much sense in an alternate universe where aliens do exist, then closes it again. Finally he says, “I should remember my own eye falling out.” He hooks one finger in his mouth and pulls it out with a pop. My stomach does acrobatics. Silence drapes over all of us again, and we sit quietly, nursing our collective wounds.
Suddenly, I become acutely aware of an empty feeling in my pocket and realize that my phone is gone.
“Crap. I don’t know where my cell went.”
“I’ll call it,” Myers says, but quickly realizes that his phone is gone, too.
“Pffft. All gone,” Anders whispers again, but this time he splays out his long fingers like a magician who’s done a cool trick.
It’s not cool at all.
Marcy takes a deep, ragged breath, and more tears drip down her face. She should be happy. She’s finally gotten what she’s always wanted. Anders is right there with his head in her lap. Still, even I know that she doesn’t want a broken Anders. She wants a bright and shiny Anders who winks at her from the basketball court after making a shot, or steals tater-tots from her tray during lunch in the Meadowfield High School cafeteria.
I reach down and rub the little triangle on my arm and try to blot out the pain. I can feel the perfect angles under my thumb like skin Braille. Burns like this one never go away. I’m branded like a cow. I’m branded for life.
Baa. Baa. BAAAAA.
A chill runs up my spine. Somewhere in the back of my skull I hear that sound—sheep crying.
Baa. Baa. BAAAAA.
Baa. BAA. BAAAAA.
BAA. BAA. BAAAAA.
Without warning a wave of nausea smashes into me with such force I almost topple over. Dark visions swim across my brain.
I see eyes—big, black eyes, looming over me, boring into me. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say they’re alien eyes like in Myers’ stupid TV shows. Bile rises up my throat. I almost puke, but I don’t. Puking right now would be the worst possible thing in a long list of really awful things.
Besides, I’m convinced those eyes aren’t real. If they are, I’m not sure they’re even human.
I puke anyway.
“ARE YOU OKAY?”
Myers is standing next to me as I sink my feet halfway up to my shins in the muddy waters of Turner Pond. My stomach won’t stop twisting and turning around my insides and little beads of sweat pop out on my forehead.
“I’m fine,” I say to him, which is such a monumental lie that he looks at me with his one good eye like I’ve gone crazy.
I hug myself with my burning arm. “I’m fine,” I say again as the cries of sheep echo in the back of my mind.
Off in the distance, a faint wail pierces the morning. I squint and look up into the sky. This time, instead of the town fire alarm, I hear the sound of police car sirens, which are completely foreign in Meadowfield.
Ours is a good town. We’re good people. We don’t hear police car sirens or see flashing red and blue lights, not unless it’s during Meadowfield Days on the town green and there’s a parade or something.
I turn and look back at Marcy, with her soft curls and beautiful face, and Anders’ head in her lap. She matches my stare, so I try my best not to let my eyes do a once over. I don’t want her to feel even more self-conscious about only having panties and Myers’ sweatshirt to cover herself.
“Anders is bloody.” I say. That’s not entirely true anymore. He’s still splotchy, but the water got most of it off. His clothes are another story. If he’s smart, he’ll bury them, but he’s not anything now except close to catatonic.
“Yeah,” says Myers. “And you’re pukey.” He reaches up and rubs his head, not where his eye is supposed to be, but along his temples. “I have a killer headache.”
I step out of the water, reach down, and wipe the pond scum off my legs. Meanwhile, Marcy tilts her head up to the sun. Her nostrils flair a tiny bit. “I don’t understand how we can’t remember anything,” she says. “And I feel awful.”
I lick my lips. “Try puking,” I say, being totally honest. “I think I feel a little better.” Of course my brain is still all fluffy but it doesn’t do any good to state the obvious.
Another police car siren slices through the morning.
“I should be there,” says volunteer fire-nerd Myers, even though none of us even know where ‘there’ is. Something’s happening outside of the The Maze—something not right—but something’s happening inside The Maze, too, and I suddenly feel an urgent need to get away from Turner Pond, Prince Richard’s Maze, and all the dead leaves.
I want to feel pavement underneath my feet.
“I’m going to get something for you and Anders to wear,” I tell Marcy. Then I look over at Myers. “There’s an eyepatch on a coconut in my bedroom,” I tell him.
“The creepy pirate one with the painted teeth?”
“Yeah,” I say. “The creepy pirate one with the painted teeth.”
“But what about my parents?” he whimpers. “I’m so screwed.”
“Tell them the truth,” I say. “You lost your eye. That’s the truth.”
I take a deep breath and slowly let it fill up my insides. I do it again, three, maybe four times. A third siren swirls through the morning, this time high and fast. It comes and then it’s gone.
We all look at each other, and Anders closes his eyes really tight and puts his hands over his ears.
He’s broken somehow. Someone or something has reached inside his brain and scooped out the part that’s supposed to be Anders Stephenson, leaving him a mushy mess.
Pffft. All gone.
“I’m going,” I tell them all. I roll my shirt sleeve down over my arm, mostly to cover the burning triangle, and start walking away from them down Little Loop.
“My parents are gone for the weekend,” Marcy calls out after me, like I don’t already know that the Coles went to the Indian Casino down in Connecticut for their anniversary. They decided that Marcy was finally old enough to stay alone and not get into any trouble. They were wrong. “You know how to break in?”
I don’t turn around as I keep walking. “In the garage,” I say loud enough for her to hear. “On the ledge under the steps.” Then I keep going, wanting to get away from my friends, Turner Pond, and everything.
Five minutes later, after some twists and turns, I reach the chain that crosses the exit to The Maze and Meadowfield Street beyond. There are cars going back and forth, because to the left of the maze is the entrance to the highway and Springfield’s dinky skyline off in the distance. I take a deep breath, step over the chain, and take a right onto the sidewalk.
It’s almost three miles to home. I walk quickly, but not too quickly. I don’t want anyone wondering why I’m out for a stroll on a Saturday morning without my friends and with a confused look on my face.
No one in Meadowfield would even care about me or what I’m doing.
As I walk, my thoughts wander back to the sheep. We don’t have farm animals in Meadowfield. We’re a big, square patch of suburbia where you can’t even have a rabbit hutch in your backyard. I only know that because Myers had a pet rabbit a couple years back that stunk up his basement so much that his parents made him keep it outside in a wooden hutch. His next-door neighbor, Mrs. Horowitz, complained to the town that it was unsightly. Myers ended up having to get rid of the hutch, his rabbit, and everything, and he moped around for weeks.
There aren’t any sheep for miles—not until you cross over the border to Connecticut and hit Tobacco Alley where all the farms are.
So why are they in my head?
I close my eyes and start walking a little faster, but not too fast. In a town where everyone knows everyone, I feel paranoia clinging to my insides like I did something wrong and now everyone knows what I did.
I can’t keep my eyes closed, though. When I do, I see big black orbs staring at me again.
Thankfully, I don’t scrunch up my face when I start crying. The tears start to flow. For all I know, they’re glistening on my face in the sunlight, and I look like one of those diamond-covered vampires.
That, or some other kind of monster.
I MANAGE TO MAKE it almost all the way home—down Meadowfield Street, past the library, through a cluster of neighborhoods where the wealthy of the wealthy live in big brick colonials, alongside Elm Knoll Park, and almost in sight of Meadowfield High School before the inevitable happens and I run into someone I know.
“You look like shit, man,” says Grafton Applewhite. He’s on a mountain bike, wearing soccer cleats and a Meadowfield soccer uniform. It’s Saturday morning. There must be a game.
“Whatever,” I say. I can’t think of anything else worthwhile to let slip from my lips. I’m not friends with Grafton Applewhite, but he plays sports with Anders, and Anders has made it crystal clear to anyone and everyone that his friends aren’t to be messed with, no matter what.
Grafton used to be a total dick in junior high school. I remember he labeled me ‘lard ass’ once, then called me out to the dunes after school because he said he wanted to beat the fat out of me.
Back then, I almost shit my pants. I didn’t know how to fight, but when you get called out to the dunes after school, you have to go. If you don’t, you’re a pussy for life.
I remember hiding in the bathroom during F Block—Social Studies—afraid to leave the building once the bell rang. Thankfully, the ceiling started echoing with the sounds of a downpour outside. By the time last period ended and I got up the courage to leave the bathroom and school, I knew full well that the dunes would be empty. Everyone who normally gathered there wasn’t interested in seeing blood drain away in the rain.
The next day, with my heart pounding in my chest most of the day for fear that the dunes were still looming in my future, Anders got to Grafton Applewhite in the gym locker room before Grafton ever got to me, and punched him in the head.
Grafton never bothered me after that.
But today, of all days, he seems like he wants to be friends.
“I mean, you really look like shit,” he says. “Just saying.”
“Bad night,” I mutter and keep walking. Grafton pumps his bike a couple times to keep pace with me.
“No kidding,” he chuckles. “I saw you at The Stumps last night. You were pretty wasted.”
We were at The Stumps?
After the freak storm in 2011, there were so many downed trees that the town took the far end of Miller Road, where it dead ends near the dump, and piled everything there. After a while, the woods behind the enormous pile of uprooted debris became known as The Stumps—a prime party spot.
“I don’t remember being at The Stumps,” I tell Grafton as I reach over with my right arm and rub my left. It’s true. I don’t remember anything about The Stumps, or last night, or being hammered like Grafton says I was.
Grafton bursts out laughing, and all of a sudden I want to be back in junior high school again so I can be the one to call him out to the dunes and beat his face into a bloody mash. “No doubt,” he snorts. “You, Anders, that weird kid you hang out with and . . .” Grafton licks his lips. “And Marcy Cole.”
The burning in my left arm starts throbbing, and I bite my lip.
“Okay,” I say, trying to figure out a way to tell Grafton to get the hell away from me. I’m
confused and in pain, and all I want to do is get home and find clean clothes for Anders and Marcy, and a coconut’s eyepatch for Myers.
“Must have been something good,” he says. “Share next time.” Then he pushes on the pedals of his bike, speeds up, and heads off toward the high school parking lot and the playing fields beyond.
I watch him go, still all gummed up and confused.
We were at The Stumps.
The four of us—me, Marcy, Anders and Myers—aren’t exactly part of the popular crowd. Anders has his jock friends, and I’m sort of friendly with some of the kids in chorus, but Marcy and Myers stick to themselves or to us. We’re not Stumps-kids. We may want to be, but we’re not.
Still, even if we were at The Stumps last night, and even if we were wasted, there would be something in my head telling me it’s true. There would be a little electrical synapse firing off a tiny loop of brain-film that would play over and over again, making me realize that, yeah, we were there, and we were partying like the jocks and the cheerleaders and anyone else who considers themselves part of the popular crowd.
But there’s nothing.
All there is inside my fuzzy memory is big, black eyes and a soundtrack right out of a slaughter house.
My tears start to bubble up again and I let them have their way.