Authors: Greg Walker
An Incidental Reckoning
by Greg Walker
Also by Greg Walker:
The Way It Is
A Long Winter's Journey
Copyright 2013 Greg Walker
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in any part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
To second chances, and the strangers we spend time with every day; especially the one whose skin we wear
Jon Albridge peered out across the courtyard, sighed, and trudged forward with head down and eyes pointed at his shoes, the untied laces of his right dragging out behind. He knew some of the kids he planned to avoid from junior high, but this was high school, the Big Time, everyone jostling for space in their brand new haircuts and blue jeans, especially his fellow freshmen. He felt more like a store mannequin in his, a shape without substance covered in designer labels.
The shaky relationships held with his classmates through simple proximity - living in the same school district, sharing rowdy classrooms and cracked green vinyl seats on the bus - had loosened in the past few years already due to his shy, awkward demeanor and fondness for solitude. Now, with increased awareness of how even casual ties with someone considered a loser could trash a reputation and make it a long, desolate four years until graduation, a wariness existed in the eyes of his peers, reminiscent of small animals set loose in a tiger’s cage and left to fend for themselves.
Jon painfully understood that he teetered at the edge of the loser category, and kept his head down to avoid attracting attention, lest he find in those eyes willing to meet his recognition of an opportunity to throw him to the wolves for a chance at being cool. The fact that his mind populated the narrative to describe his experiences with predators didn't help.
He had just left the cafeteria, sitting alone at the end of a table with a few seats between him and some boys that lived in Loser Country: odd kids with funny smiles and animated gestures, bad teeth and last year’s clothes that marked them at a glance even to a novice like him. Jon had studied them from the corner of his eye while chewing and feigning interest in his new algebra textbook. Despite their shortcomings, they were easy with each other, had accepted their citizenship as outcasts and made the best of it, or never questioned their country of origin in the first place. Fighting a crushing loneliness, Jon still hoped that he might tap an unknown vein inside, a lode of the good stuff that seemed to ooze from others, currency to trade for friends and standing in this terrifying new world. He dreaded the alternative, the irrevocable removal of the chairs now providing a few degrees of separation from the misfits. With a sinking feeling in his gut, he had wondered if they would even accept him if he slid over.
He trekked across the seemingly endless space filled with stone benches and a raised ring of concrete in the center that surrounded a dry fountain, its current state probably the result of experience with high school kids and a lot of water in close proximity. Groups of students had overrun the courtyard ahead of the next bell: pairs, triads, and indefinable conglomerates with membership continually changing, orbited by others arriving too late, or filled with too much energy, to be seated. He did risk glances at some of the girls, his mouth dry at his own brazenness, but focused again on his shoelaces if they even so much as flinched at the brush of his gaze. Jon didn't concentrate on any one conversation within range that could make sense, but instead absorbed the babble of combined voices that sounded like the muttering of a great animal or hum of a massive machine, something alien from the language of kids that he was somehow expected to find his voice within.
Jon caught a glimpse of himself in the windows that reflected the courtyard. Saw an average kid, a little on the small side, and non-descript in pretty much any contest he might find himself in when measured with his peers. Another kid to fill the seat behind a desk, harboring no real ambitions beyond survival.
At the end of his long march, he slid around the corner of the building and sighed in desperate relief. A block that housed a stairwell jutted out at the far edge of the courtyard, the sister protrusion on the opposite side his destination. Now with the bricks at his back and alone, the chatter muffled and mixed with sounds of the street fifty yards away, Jon let the tension ebb from his body: he unclenched his jaw, gave up the stranglehold on his pack thrown over one shoulder, slid it off and pulled out one of his new comic books. Anticipating fifteen minutes of escape, before the bell rang and forced him back inside, Jon moved around the abutment to the “L” shaped sanctuary on the other side.
He should have known better, he thought later and for decades after that. But the overwhelming need for peace deafened him to any internal warnings.
Two types of kid sought these lonely, unwatched spaces, and many labels could be applied to either of them. But in the equation that Jon entered, the labels equaled predator and prey - his fears realized - and their sum was pain.
He might have escaped with some taunts or basic hostility, but while reading the cover of the Batman in his hands and admiring the well-drawn physique of Catwoman, he collided with Brody Stape, winding up to punch another kid cowering in the corner. Off-balance, Stape fell to his knees in the fresh-cut grass.
“What the FUCK?”
He might have escaped if he had run fast before Brody spun around and marked him, except that Roger and Crush, his soul mates in inflicting harm and humiliation, had already sealed the exits. Roger tore the comic book from his hands and flung it away, leaving Jon only a ragged portion of the cover. Crush grabbed the front of his t-shirt, twisted it into a knot that pulled the seams taut against Jon’s shoulder blades, and held him in place with a happy grin while Brody got up and examined the grass stains on his knees. Despite the numb shock that spread throughout his body, Jon couldn't help but be impressed by their efficiency, as though they had drilled all summer for this specific encounter. The kid in the corner seemed relieved to have lost their attention, and his eyes darted furtively in the direction of escape.
The kid slumped against the bricks, his arms crossed over his stomach.
Brody stepped forward and thrust his face an inch from Jon’s. He wasn’t very tall, shorter than both of his sidekicks, but made up for it with viciousness and a complete absence of fear. Jon had heard the rumors, that he had gone to a college party and beat up three members of a fraternity at a personal cost of broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder. A legend of sorts, but a legend to be viewed from a distance and preferably behind bars or very thick glass; not so close that Jon could smell the same bland pizza he had just eaten on his breath mixed with the odor of a fresh smoked cigarette, see the pimples popped and those not quite ripe. Brody took over the shirt-holding duties from Crush, and shook him hard.
“I’m sorry,” Jon said. He tried and failed to meet the intensity in Brody's soot gray eyes. But in the quick glance, he read amusement and intent to take total advantage of this windfall. Jon imagined him thanking dark and surly gods for his gift.
“Sorry doesn’t pay for a new pair of jeans, asswipe."
The stains will wash out,
Jon thought, but didn't dare say it out loud. "I have five bucks on me. I'll give that to you now, and the rest later. How much did they cost?"
"A hundred and fifty dollars. Maybe we can deal. Let me see that five."
Jon knew a pair of jeans didn't cost that much, but refused to scoff at the bargain of his short lifetime. Brody let go of his shirt, and he reached around for his wallet and pulled out the five, the one lonely bill he possessed and his sole means for lunches over the next few days. Brody took it and put it in his pocket.
"Not going to work, now that I think about it."
"But you just took..."
"Took what? What did I take? You calling me a thief?" He heard Roger chuckle; he and Crush had moved to either side of him, distinguishable only as dark shapes in his periphery.
"No. You didn't take anything." Jon started to back up slowly, to get a better visual on the lesser but still dangerous antagonists flanking him, and to try and create enough space to run. He felt a bump from behind.
"Where you think you're going?"
"I have to get to class. The bell's going to ring soon, and we all have to be there...right?" He heard the hopeful desperation in his voice and saw it reflected on Brody's face, in the form of a smile that spelled his doom.
"You'll go when we're finished here. We still have the stains on my pants, and I need to take care of him." Brody motioned to the kid against the bricks, who had stood up and collected his backpack, but remained in his assigned space. "But you're right. We do need to get back, so I can't do this right."
"So I can go? I mean, I'm sorry about your jeans. I just wasn't watching where I was going. It was an accident. I know who are and I would never do that on purpose..." Jon hated the placating tone in his voice, the fear and submissiveness, but he couldn't stop the words from gushing out.
Brody's face darkened, and he stepped in close again, "What do you mean, 'I know who you are'? You don't know anything about me."
Jon flinched. "Sorry. I don't. I really don't."
Brody smiled again, and shook his head, pleased with something that Jon didn't understand. He wondered if Brody was genuinely crazy.
"You know what? I'm not going to touch you. Either of you."
"You're not?" Crush echoed, bafflement on his face that Jon would have laughed at in other circumstances.
"Nope. I have a better idea. You're going to fight each other."
"What? I don't want to fight him. I don't even know who he is."
Brody turned towards the kid, who had finally spoken, abandoning his attempt at invisibility. He was tall, taller than Brody, and thin with brown hair cut short; the work of a mother with clippers at the kitchen table. He wore khakis and a button shirt like he had come for a job interview instead of school, and black sneakers. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed from nervousness.
If I had any balls, I'd attack Brody right now and be done with it. Aren't they supposed to respect you or at least leave you alone if you do that?
Jon clenched his fist, and then realized he wasn't fooling himself and released it. He prayed for the bell to ring, for someone to come around the corner, someone driving by to stop and help.
"Where did you get the idea you had a vote? I can personally kick the shit out of you right now, if you want."
The kid shook his head and looked at Jon, and Jon understood that this was really going to happen. Someone from behind shoved him, and he stumbled into the corner and nearly collided with his opponent.