Category Archives: writing

#FridayFlash: Dave

Dave

The first time it happened, Dave Warrick nearly scared himself to death.

He was two days shy of his fourteenth birthday and, like nearly every other day of his young life, he was running home from school. If his father hadn’t run out on him and his mother three years earlier, Dave was sure he would have told his son, “Don’t run. Fight. Stand up for yourself!” But Dave was lacking a strong paternal influence. All he had to fall back on were his mother’s assurances that his high school tormenters were just “jealous of your good grades” and “one day you’ll show them all when you’re a lawyer or a doctor … or president.”

After he had received his third bloody nose of the school year, Dave quickly decided to ignore any and all of his mother’s future pep talks. She couldn’t seriously believe what she was telling him. His mother had to be reciting from a list of platitudes in a chapter of The Handbook for Parents of Terminally Awkward and Relentlessly Bullied Children.

It would be nice to believe that, at some future date, he would encounter one of his high school classmates and that they would be genuinely penitent for all they had done to him when they were younger. Maybe they’d try to enlist his aid in finding a job–“starting quarterback” was nice in high school, but it didn’t exactly stand out on a resume. He would nod and smile and promise to “try my best,” promptly forgetting the encounter.

Sure, he thought. That would be great! Of course, he added, tumbling back to reality like a skydiver denied a parachute, success will be beyond my grasp if my next beating–and another beating was inevitable–leaves me a drooling, incontinent mess living solely for my next serving of lime Jell-O.

None of his mother’s kind words or her hopeless optimism that he had, on rare occasions, found himself believing could remove him from his current situation.

He was still that scrawny kid with long, skinny arms and legs and feet that seemed too big for his body. The kid who, if he wanted to see more than five or six inches in front of him, had to wear glasses whose thick, Coke-bottle lenses made his brown eyes look almost bug-eye. The kid with acne and braces. The kid who found comfort in the fact that his last name granted him a seat in the back of class, safe from the spitballs and paper airplanes: The preferred classroom arsenal of his tormenters. The kid who was, again, running for his life.

Why you botherin’ to run, Davey?” a voice called from behind as, for some reason known only to his primitive, reptile brain, Dave turned onto the narrow path that led from the school’s courtyard to the athletic field.

His heart was pounding in his chest; his blood roared in his ears. Sweat poured from his tousled sand-colored hair and stung his eyes. He gasped, his lungs burning, his adolescent muscles starving for oxygen. Then, like the instinct of a hunted animal, an idea materialized: If he could get into the gym, maybe he could double back through the locker room and make his way back to the courtyard before his pursuers figured out where he had gone.

It was a pretty good plan; it was a plan worthy of Hannibal or Caesar…or Braveheart. It was, he told himself as his skinny arms and legs pumped, propelling him around a bend in the path, quite a cunning ruse. He continued to revel in his strategy as his sneakers squeaked on the gym’s polished parquet floor.

Dave continued to mentally pat himself on the back even as he slammed his right shoulder into the unyielding locker room door. He shifted his knapsack to his right shoulder and tried the door again with his left. It was no use; the door was securely locked from the other side and, even if he used every ounce of his eighty-five pound body, that would not change.

Dave swore, stringing together a sentence using every monosyllabic, guttural word his mother had told him did little to illustrate his intelligence.

The gymnasium door flew open, banging against the wall with a hollow thud that echoed off the tiled walls of the gym, and the three boys who had chased Dave Warrick from eighth period history stepped through–each one his physical superior.

It woulda worked Davey,” the boy in the middle said, shaking his head, “if Coach didn’t lock that door every day.”

The three boys advanced–Eric Slater, broad-shouldered and blond, was in the lead. He was flanked by stocky, dark-haired Mike Burnett and Jason Grey, who wore his red hair in a ponytail and had a sparse teenage goatee. Each boy was the epitome of what it meant to be popular and successful in high school. They were each on the baseball and the football teams–Eric was the captain of both teams. Each boy wore the latest clothes and sneakers, had perfectly styled hair and wouldn’t know a pimple if one reached up and bit them on the nose.

Dave pressed his back against the locked door, bracing himself for his daily beating. He hoped it would be quick–yesterday, Mike decided to give him a lecture as he was punching him in the stomach; it was some ridiculously tedious James Bond-villain speech about why they beat him up every day. He hoped it would be painless. But, most of all, he hoped that tomorrow he’d be able to make it home before they caught him.

Home: That was all he wanted. To just be home. In his kitchen; in his living room; in his own bed.

Dave felt a tingle run up his spine and down his arms, radiating out to each of his fingertips. This tingling, not entirely unlike the numbness of pins-and-needles, was a part of his daily ritual. He called it the “anticipation tingle.” Most likely, and biology was not his best subject, it was a reaction to a release of adrenaline or some other hormone. However, the strange light that was creeping across his field of vision was a new phenomena.

The white light seemed to envelope him as Eric Slater reached out to grab him. Shit, Dave thought, I must be having a heart attack! Or a stroke! I’m dying! He closed his eyes and braced for the first punch. He felt a warm tear trickle down his cheek.

When he opened his eyes, Dave thought he’d find himself sprawled on the floor of the gym, the metallic tang of his blood mixing with the vile taste of the lemon and ammonia mixture of the wax used on the gym floor. As the blackness subsided and the white spots blinked out of existence, the last thing Dave expected to see were the poster-covered walls of his own bedroom. A million questions bubbled to the surface of his brain but they were all swept aside by an inescapable desire to close his eyes again and sleep.

He took off his glasses and, after dropping them over the side of his bed, closed his eyes and let the darkness of unconsciousness embrace him.

Dave was willing to write the whole experience off as some kind of neurological post-traumatic defense mechanism. Until it happened a second time. The third time Dave Warrick warped space and time, he realized something interesting was happening to him. He would lie in bed and think of getting a snack from the kitchen downstairs; his arms and legs would start to tingle, the white light would slowly cloud his vision and he’d be standing in front of the refrigerator. If he were running late for school, he’d just think of the deserted stairwell next to the cafeteria and, in a blink, he was there.

He wasn’t sure exactly what was happening, but he knew one thing: Eric Slater was never going to beat him up. Not. Ever. Again.

#FridayFlash: Broadus, MT

Broadus, MT

“I know what you can do.”

Cassie looked at the older man sitting across from her. He’d approached her outside of the small roadside diner near Broadus, Montana. He offered to buy her a cup of coffee if she’d give him ten minutes of her time. He seemed harmless enough and, if he wasn’t, she could certainly take care of herself.

He introduced himself as Arthur Sheridan and claimed to be a scientist—a geneticist, he said, among other specialties. Sheridan appeared to be in his early fifties, but with a youthful vitality despite walking with a cane. His close-cropped red hair was graying at the temples and streaks of gray ran through his carefully trimmed beard.

“You know what I can do?” she asked, not bothering to meet his blue eyes with her own. “Great. My mom and dad are real proud that I know all the state capitals. I can name the presidents in chronological order, too.”

Sheridan smiled and damned if that smile didn’t say “We both know what I’m talking about.”

“Okay, look, I appreciate the coffee, Mister, but I gotta go.”

Cassie started to slide out of their corner booth—

“Doctor.”

“What?”

Sheridan took a sip of his coffee—he drank it black with lots of sugar, just like Cassie’s dad. “I have a PhD. Several, actually. So it should be Doctor. Not Mister.”

Cassie laughed. She couldn’t help it. He had said it without reproach or any indication of wounded pride. He was simply stating a fact and doing so with a smile. “Sorry,” she said. “I appreciate the coffee, Doctor.”

“You should probably eat something,” Sheridan muttered as he scanned the diner’s simple, two-page paper menu. “Especially after you single-handedly stopped that runaway train earlier this morning.”

That got Cassie’s attention. No one saw her stop that freight train, not even the engineer. She was sure of it. She’d been careful. Her parents always taught her to be careful. She wasn’t like other girls and not just because she was adopted. No, she was special; she could do things. And, in a place like Rampart, Alaska–where there were less than one hundred residents–being different would have been noticed. So, she had kept her abilities hidden. Even now, almost ten years after leaving home, she made sure no one saw her use her abilities. It wasn’t possible that anyone other than her mother and father could know she was special.

Yet here was Dr. Arthur Sheridan, and he apparently knew it all.

Cassie leaned over the table. “How did you—”

“Doesn’t matter,” Sheridan waved his hand. “What matters is I know. I know you’re special. I know you want to help people. And I know others like you who feel the same.”

She sat back, arms folded across her chest and thought for a second. “Okay,” Cassie finally said, brushing a wayward strand of black hair behind her ear, and looking at the menu. “But first, how about a bacon cheeseburger?”

Sheridan got the waitress’s attention with a simple nod and, looking back at Cassie, said: “John Tyler.”

Cassie grinned. “James K. Polk.”

#FridayFlash: The Hunt, Part Three

The Hunt, Part Three

The girl screamed. It was a primal sound that was almost devoid of all humanity. Blood was splattered on her face and across the front of her smock.

The headman fell to the ground at her feet. Admund’s arrows had found their targets, despite the ill-fitting pieces of armor that the slaver wore. One arrow had pierced his throat, the broad arrowhead entering just below his chin and continuing until it erupted out behind the opposite ear. The second arrow, moving too fast for the eye to see, grazed his meaty thigh and struck deep into his groin. As he died, the slaver’s grip on the length of rope tied around the girl’s slender waist tightened. Panicking, the girl tried to pull herself free. Tugging, tugging. Finally, the rope was freed from the slaver’s death grip, but the force with which she had pulled the rope sent her stumbling backwards.

The other slavers noticed their leader go down and started towards the wagon, swords drawn. Admund dropped two with well-placed arrows to the skull. By now, the remaining slavers were cautious, looking into the trees to see if they could locate the faceless assassin who had made them his target.

Abandoning the bow, Admund charged from the trees, drawing his twin long knives. “Get down!” he shouted, hoping that the girl understood his words. “Under the wagon! Now!”

The girl complied, disappearing under the slaver’s wagon just as the first group of dark-skinned miscreants converged on the body of their fallen leader. Admund was on them within moments, the blades of his long knives flashing in the early morning sunlight. He sliced through the throats of two slavers as quickly and cleanly as he would skin a hare. He plunged a blade into the stomach of a third, gutting the man where he stood.

The remaining two slavers spread out, taking care to keep just beyond the reach of their assailant’s knives. They barked at each other in the same unknown language that Admund had heard their leader use. One spoke. Then the other. The first nodded and lunged at Admund, swinging his curved sword wildly.

Admund dropped his knives and drew his own sword, a straight-bladed long sword that had once belonged to his father. He caught the slaver’s blade on his own, deflecting the attack and pushing his foe back several steps. Admund stared into his opponent’s dark, bloodshot eyes and allowed himself a momentary grin. These slavers were large men, to be sure, but their sheer size and bulk were nothing compared to Admund’s sinewy frame. He knew they would tire long before he did.

If they didn’t make a serious mistake before that.

The slaver spat some invective that Admund couldn’t decipher as he came again. He held his sword high, leaving himself exposed. In a single motion, Admund stepped into his attacker’s path and let the darker man’s own momentum drive his blade hilt-deep into the slaver’s own stomach.

He was so intent on pulling his sword free from the corpse of his newly-fallen foe that Admund hadn’t noticed the shadow creeping up behind him. It was the rasping sound of labored breathing that finally drew the hunter’s attention. Admund spun and saw the final slaver looming over him, sword in his hand and murder in his eyes.

The slaver took one step closer. Admund struggled to free his sword.

The slaver took another step.

Unable to pull his sword from the corpse at his feet, Admund was weaponless. He watched as the slaver prepared to strike, a wicked smile on his lips matching the wicked curved sword in his hand, the sword that was surely mere heartbeats away from repaying Admund for what he had done to the slaver’s companions.

The slaver’s eyes flashed with menace as he swung, but his attack unexpectedly missed its mark, grazing Admund’s arm and barely cutting through the sleeve of his buckskin tunic. The slaver staggered, eyes wide. He dropped his sword and started to claw at his back. He coughed once. Twice. Blood began to bubble at the corners of his mouth.

Admund watched as his attacker fell forward, one of his own long knives protruding from the slaver’s back. The knife’s twin was currently in the trembling hand of the blood-spattered girl. She studied Admund with cold, vacant eyes.

#

They stood like that for several moments, the girl and her rescuer. Eventually, having been satisfied by some unknown or unspoken impulse, she simply nodded and placed Admund’s knife on the ground. Although she spoke little, Admund learned that her name was Rayna and that she was born in a small fishing village on the western shores of Aradorn. The slavers had come from the sea and killed as many of the men in the village as they could, taking her and her three sisters, as well as several of the other girls from the village.

Rayna had watched as the slavers took most of the girls back to their ship. Her and a few others, including her sisters, had been loaded into the wagon and taken east. She didn’t know where they were being taken, but she knew only she had survived.

Admund looked into the wagon and saw the lifeless bodies of several girls, some as young as seven or eight summers. Even though he had hunted and killed most of his life, Admund still felt his gorge rise at the sight of the pale, emaciated girls.

“Your family?”

The girl simply nodded.

“If you like, I can build a fire and we can send them to the afterlife in the proper fashion.”

Rayna smiled for the first time since he had seen her pulled from the slaver’s wagon. “Yes. I would like that very much. Thank you.”

#FridayFlash: The Hunt, Part Two

The Hunt, Part Two

Swift yet silent, Admund moved through the brush. His father had been the royal game warden and raised both of his sons to be expert woodsmen. His skills grew over time and now, as an adult, Admund could track anything and move through even the densest woodlands without leaving a trace of his passing.

The slavers, however, were a good deal less concerned with stealth. They marched through the trees, speaking and laughing loudly, as though they were carousing in a tavern. Their wagon creaked and rattled as it moved over the uneven earth, the draft horses pulling it huffed and snorted in the cool morning air. Unlike Admund, the slavers didn’t care if twigs snapped beneath their boots. A few of them even hacked at low-hanging branches with their curved swords. They assumed they were alone and, on most days, they would have been correct.

Admund stalked them as he would any other prey. He needed to know why these men were here and, more importantly, where they were going. Slavers were concerned with one thing: profit. And, slavers needed prisoners to keep their purses full of coins. The hill country and highlands to the north were sparsely populated, but those few small villages would make easy targets. It was very likely that Admund was the only thing standing between these innocent villagers and a brief life of harsh, brutal labor. Or worse.

In addition to the dozen broadheads in his quiver, Admund also carried a pair of long knives and a small hatchet, more useful in the hunting and skinning of game than for combat with a man. Fortunately, these slavers were clad in nothing heavier than wool or buckskin, neither of which would keep his arrows from finding flesh. And, if things became too dire, he always had his father’s longsword at his side.

Sarret!

The word the horseman bellowed meant nothing to Admund, but his men immediately came to a halt. He dismounted and handed the reins of his horse to the two slavers who had come up to tend to the older draft horses. He paused by the door of the wagon and threw back the heavy wooden bolt that had kept it secured. The door slowly swung open—from his hiding place, Admund could clearly hear the squealing protest of the door’s rusted hinges—and the slaver reached a thick-fingered hand inside and took hold of something. Something that was struggling or squirming to get out of his grip.

Tak! Ungterren ramu tak!” the headman barked as he pulled the girl from the wagon.

Admund watched as the girl—no more than twelve or thirteen summers—collapsed on the ground at the slaver’s boots. Under mud and dried blood, Admund could see that she was fair skinned, like himself, with hair that had once been the color of wheat and dark, sunken eyes that no longer resembled the eyes of a girl. No, Admund recognized that look. The look of an animal. A frightened animal that had been hunted, beaten, and broken.

The slaver’s hand tugged at the rope that was used to keep the girl’s filthy, homespun shift in place.

Admund, his ears attuned to the slightest rustle of leaf and bush, could hear the girl’s whimper. He could also hear the coarse laughter of the slavers.

Before the vile, black-hearted slaver could finish removing the broken girl’s simple, tattered garment, Admund had strung and loosed two arrows. The twin missiles flew, their path unerring, their final destination without question.

*****

#FridayFlash: The Hunt, Part One

The Hunt, Part One

The summer was waning and the cooler air of autumn had already settled in the forests of the north. Wrapped in a heavy wool cloak and armed with the longbow he had made long before his arms had the strength to draw it, Admund had taken to the wilderness shortly after dawn. Fog hung above the ground, wrapping the trees and underbrush in a cool mist that would surely burn off before too long. He followed the Daen River west, until the elms and beech trees grew thick.

Admund was certain he was alone—at least, that is, if he did not count the hart that he had been tracking. Through a break in the trees, Admund watched the beast pause by the edge of the river. The hart drank, stopping once to sniff the air. Admund knew he was downwind of the creature—years of experience on the hunt had made avoiding detection second nature—so he knew there was no reason to fear discovery. He slowly drew one of the broadhead arrows from the quiver that hung from his belt. Keeping his eyes on the hart, Admund nocked the arrow and drew the string, taking silent aim.

He was about to release the arrow when the hart lifted its head once more, ears twitching, and bounded across the river and into the thicket on the far side. Admund swore at his misfortune. It was then that the sounds of horses intruded upon the otherwise silent morning.

Having lost his quarry, Admund turned his attentions to the approaching sounds. He was deep in the forests of Aradorn, over a full day’s journey from the nearest city or village and far from even the least-traveled roads. It was possible that they were simply travelers who had lost their way in the pre-dawn hours. It was, he decided, equally possible that they were bandits or highwaymen.

They came from the west, from the direction of the coast. A single courser and rider led the way, followed by three older draft horses pulling a large enclosed wagon. About half a dozen men walked beside and behind the wagon. The men were large and brutish, the product of long lives of hard work. They had leathery, sun-bronzed skin and black hair that they wore in either long braids or ponytails. Golden hoops adorned their ears and noses and curved, broad-bladed swords hung at their sides. Several of them bore large tattoos on their necks and exposed arms.

The rider wore brightly-colored silks under tarnished, mismatched pieces of plate armor; his men, however, were all dressed in homespun, leathers, and buckskin. They appeared to be corsairs, similar to those who raided the islands and coastlines of the southern kingdoms. However, corsairs rarely ventured this far north, especially with Woten longships crewed by bloodthirsty, battle-hardened marauders regularly sailing the frigid waves of the Northern Sea.

Corsairs also rarely ventured this far inland. They were currently several leagues from the coast and seemingly intent on journeying even further into the forest. And that wagon. Something about it gnawed at the pit of Admund’s stomach, an instinctual reaction that he had long ago learned to heed. Of simple construction, but with a single door built into the side that was secured with a heavy wooden bolt.

“By Kernow’s bow.” They weren’t corsairs, after all. They were— “Slavers.”

* * * * *


#FridayFlash: Claws That Catch, Blood That Burns

There was talk of sci-fi today…so, here’s something a little different for FridayFlash.

===============================================================

Claws That Catch, Blood That Burns

Cooper led the way towards the stasis chamber’s aft hatchway, pulse blaster drawn and ready. Laura and Shaard followed, covering the rear. He had decided the best tactic was to rendezvous with Wyatt and Bug near the derelict ship’s reactor and then proceed to the airlock as a single unit.

He stopped at the circular hatchway and put his free hand on the locking mechanism. The others gathered around him. Shaard kept his keen predator’s eyes focused the way they had come. Cooper unlocked the hatch and slowly pushed it open, the metal hinges squealing in protest after one hundred years of inactivity.

“Coop,” Shaard barked. “Hold up.”

Cooper looked back down the dark chamber. He wasn’t positive, but he thought he could see movement in the shadows. “Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?”

The Venntak nodded. “There’s at least six of ’em,” Shaard reported. “I have no idea what they are, but from what I can see, they look pretty nasty.”

They emerged from the stasis chamber and turned into the ship’s main corridor. Two lanky figures were waiting for them at the junction. One of them turned its single glowing eye and flashing sensor indicators in their direction and waved.

“Bug, what are those things?” Cooper asked.

The mech shook his head and shrugged as best as his mechanical joints would allow.

“No idea, Coop. I ran some scans on the cocoons or whatever those things we found back in the reactor chamber were but I’ve never seen anything like it before. It looks like some kind of organic metal.”

“And why didn’t we notice it before?” Laura asked over her shoulder, her carbine aimed back the way they had come.

“Not sure,” Wyatt said. “We found the things attached to the underside of the plasma conduit, partially hidden by the port distribution tube. The radiation probably masked it. Sorry”

“Doesn’t matter,” Cooper said. “Let’s just get the hell out of here.”

“Easier said than done,” Laura groaned.

They all turned and looked down the main corridor. Pairs of glimmering eyes appeared in the shadows, one at first, followed by others.

There was a raspy hiss as the first creature appeared. Two meters long, not including a serrated, whip-like tail, the creature’s muscles rippled beneath its shimmering, purple scales. Rows of needle-like teeth dripped with milky white saliva. Hissing, the creatures filled the corridor, their metallic skin glistening under the dim emergency lighting. Their flat, pointy heads moved from side to side, jaws snapping, flickering tongues tasting the air. As they approached, their sharp claws click-clacked against the ship’s metal deck plates.

The nearest one lunged towards Bug, its claws and fangs ready to rip the mech to scrap metal. Acting out of reflex, Bug swung his spindly arm, and the heavy toolkit he was holding, at the attacking creature.

The metallic reptile hissed as it fell back onto the deck. Before it could attack again, a supercharged bolt of energy hit it squarely in the stomach. The dying creature shrieked in agony as the smell of ozone and burning flesh filled the corridor.

“One down,” Laura said, leveling her carbine.

“About two dozen to go,” Bug said. He reached into his toolkit and pulled out a plasma cutter, which he gripped like a club.

Another hissing monster jumped forward, but was cut down by a swipe of Shaard’s hooked claws. The Venntak roared in agony, a patch of his thick, brown fur smoldering and sizzling. “What the–?”

“Watch out,” Cooper called over the sound of blaster fire. “These things have acidic blood. You okay, Shaard?”

The Venntak just grunted an affirmative. His heavy repeater roared as he started spraying the corridor with sizzling bolts of super-charged death.

“So,” Laura said, swinging her carbine to knock a leaping creature back to the deck before shooting it between its narrow red eyes. “What’s our best bet?”

“We stand here and pick them off one by one,” Cooper said, firing at a nearby reptile.

“Anything less messy?” Laura asked, kicking a wounded creature aside and hitting the one behind it with a precise shot to the heart, or where she assumed the thing’s heart was located.

Cooper fired randomly down the corridor, sending a pack of the creatures scattering for cover. “We can charge the buggers and try to beat them to the airlock.”

Laura shrugged. “Sure. Why not? No reason to start thinking rationally now.” She raised her carbine, took aim and fired off a pair of precision shots. “How about a plan that we might survive?”

“You know,” Cooper said, “you’ve been awfully negative lately.”

“Really?” Laura dropped her carbine and drew her pulse blasters, firing one, then the other, down the corridor. “Must be this sudden sense of impending doom.”

Cooper shook his head. “Okay,” he said, “I think I have a better plan. I’ll hold these things off while you and the others double back to the ship.”

“That’s a better plan?”

“Sure,” he said, checking his blaster’s power level. “You need to get back to the ship and power up the main guns. There’s no way I’m letting these things get anywhere near an inhabited planet.”

Laura nodded. “And you can handle a dozen of these single-handedly?”

“I have two hands,” Cooper corrected. “Two hands. A pulse blaster. And Shaard’s grenades.”

#FridayFlash: Oh What Fools These Bullies Be

Oh What Fools These Bullies Be

The first time I put on the cap was…interesting.

It was the day after the package arrived from my uncle. I was in a bit of a rush—partly because I had to take the scenic route home from school in a failed attempt to avoid my semi-daily run-in with Art Garvey and the Jock Brigade. I also had to work the evening shift at Simon’s Subs for my best friend Griswald. Trying to save as much time as possible, I stuffed the cap into my bookbag and more or less forgot about it as I ran out the front door, pulling on my bright orange Simon’s Subs polo.

I’d love to say all sorts of crazy stuff happened at Simon’s, but it didn’t. It’s just a dumpy little sandwich shop in a small town. I spent most of my eight-hour shift wiping the counter and counting the layers in the sliced onions like they were tree rings.

See? Boring. So, you can probably understand how something as ordinary as a green baseball cap in my bag could slip my mind. God only knows how long it would have stayed forgotten, pressed between my American History textbook and my AP Bio lab manual, if three of the more proactive members of the JV baseball team hadn’t decided to lock me in the janitor’s closet behind the auditorium.

“Think you’re pretty smart, huh?” the big one said.

“Messing up the curve for the rest of us,” the dumb one added,

“Y’know we can’t play if we don’t keep our grades up,” the big, dumb one concluded.

I can’t help it if I find the Progressive Era particularly interesting. I blame my dad and his union job. I was going to explain all of this, or offer up some other kind of clever retort. I was, really. But that’s when the pushing started. Even if this part of the building was crowded with students and teachers—which it usually wasn’t except during first and last period—I’m pretty sure no one would have paid much attention to three members of the championship baseball team strong-arming a skinny little nothing down the hall.

Welcome to small-town America, ladies and gentlemen.

Maybe, just maybe, I’d have avoided the whole thing if Griswald and Casey hadn’t bailed on me for band practice. Actually, probably not. Griswald is skinnier than I am and, between his long hair and his two left feet, tends to give klutzes a bad name. And, while Casey has stood up to these guys more than once, she weighs less than one of their sneakers. I admired her moxie. Really. But, like I said, odds are moxie—hers or anyone else’s—wasn’t getting me out of this.

So, that’s how I ended up locked in the janitor’s closet with three jocks-in-training laughing at me from the other side of the door. It’s a credit to my imagination that the janitor’s closet smelled pretty much like what I imagined a janitor’s closet to smell like—dusty, mildewed, stinking of bleach and floor polish. I’m pretty sure I could have charged those weird kids who hang out under the bleachers twenty bucks for a chance to spend five minutes locked in a confined space with these kinds of fumes.

Me? I wanted to get the hell out as soon as possible.

Step one: light. I needed light. I reached into my pocket before I remembered the text that Casey had sent me between third and fourth period, and that I’d dropped my cell in my bag after replying. So, my phone—and the light I hoped it would provide—was somewhere at the bottom of my bookbag.

“Okay, guys. Very funny,” I called to the three members of the Custodial Awareness Committee on the other side of the locked door. “I’ll certainly consider a career in janitorial engineering. Thanks.”

That should do the trick.

Their response? More laughter.

Back to the cell phone hunt. Twenty seconds later, I came to the conclusion that I have way too much crap in my bookbag. Notebook, out. American History textbook, out. What the hell? Something had come out with the history book and flopped down to the floor. Oh, right. The baseball cap Uncle Bryan sent me. It might not be the most awesome gift I’d ever gotten, but it was a gift, and I couldn’t just leave it on the floor of the janitor’s closet. So, I did what anyone would do: I just put the silly thing on my head.

The first thought that popped into my head was Whoa!, followed by These fumes have finally gotten to me.

My whole body was kinda numb and pins-and-needly. I could move, but it didn’t really feel like I was the one controlling my body. Plus, there was a voice. It was smooth; reassuring and mocking at the same time. And it was whispering in my ear, urging me to do and say everything I’d ever wanted to do and say but didn’t because of the consequences.

Consequences no longer apply to you, it said. See. Want. Take.

What I saw was a locked door. What I wanted was to get the hell out of this closet. What I took was a running leap at the door.

I hit the door. Hard. Really hard. But, it didn’t budge. I could still hear laughter from outside. I had to get out. Like, now. It’s a good thing I finally found that sledgehammer. I have no idea why a high school janitor would need a giant sledgehammer. Or how I’d known where it was in the dark. Or—and this was the weirdest part—how it ended up in my hands when I didn’t even remember reaching for anything.

What I did know was that it was going to make short work of this door. And those three losers on the other side. Whoa. What? Okay, okay. I won’t be using a sledgehammer on those three—

Why not? Because it’s wrong!

—but this door is a whole different story…