Authors: S. Walden
Copyright 2015, S. Walden
Publisher: Penny Press
This work and all rights of the author S. Walden to this work are protected under U.S. copyright law, Title 17 of the United States Code. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, copied in any form or by any means electronic or mechanical, photocopied, recorded or otherwise transmitted without written permission from the publisher. This ebook may not be circulated in any format, resold, or given away. This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. Thank you for respecting the hard work of the author.
Cover by Robin Ludwig Design, Inc.
Editor: Marsha Loversky
A special thanks to Stephanie, who is forever faithful in helping me promote my work. She believed in
from its conception and encouraged me to see it through to the end. She is so much more than a work colleague. She is a true friend.
To my Summertime Girls, who are my biggest cheerleaders. I never expected to be so blessed—to be surrounded by wonderful women who believe in my stories, believe in my vision, and want the best for my career. Thank you for our cocktail parties and for the fun you bring me in the book world.
Mrs. Loversky's 7th graders from Simmons Middle School in Aurora, IL
, who set me straight on my teen slang. Totally epic. Thank you. Hope you enjoyed the grammar lessons!
This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to real persons or events are entirely coincidental. Any similarities to real places may or may not be.
Not many authors will discourage you from reading their work. After all, the goal of our stories is to grow our readership, not diminish it. I’m well aware of that, but when I first became inspired with Jeremy’s story, I knew I would have to go about promoting it in an entirely different way—something far removed from my past marketing campaigns. I knew I would have to hide the book, stamp disclaimers all over it, plant seeds of doubt in your minds, decline requests for advanced reviews—in essence, all the things an author SHOULD NOT do when marketing her book. That’s why it took me so long to write the damn thing—over a year of worrying, second-guessing, flip-flopping, arguing. Jeremy sat waiting patiently, and I stared back at him wondering just how much he would destroy my career.
Then I remembered that his story is exactly the type of controversial social issue I enjoy tackling. I knew I had to write it because I
. I could be sensitive to the subject matter without being PC. I could leave my political and moral opinions out of it. I could make it a
story, not a
story. I could do all these things if I worked very hard—if I was diligent and faithful to my characters and their experiences. Once I realized these things, I stopped fretting and just started writing, careful to keep all the details private and sacred. That’s how writing should be: private and sacred.
Now Jeremy’s story is no longer private, but I hope you will find it sacred. I hope you will throw off your preconceptions and bury your social and political views, your moral judgments. It’s too easy to go into a story like this already angry, especially if you or someone you love has experienced gun violence. I urge you to think long and hard before starting
if you are especially sensitive to the topic of school shootings. There are extremely violent, descriptive scenes, and I do not wish for my book to be a trigger for you.
I am well aware of the social debate a book like this may provoke. I did not write it for debate. I did not write it to make a statement about guns, gun control, gun access, Constitutional rights, etc. I am not interested in comparing my story to the horrific school shootings that have taken place in the United States. I have no motive other than to tell a story about an abused boy who felt he deserved justice. What you take away from the novel is entirely up to you.
To the lonely and brokenhearted.
And to the ones who fight for them.
A lot can change in the space between devising a plan and carrying it out. That space is called the INTERIM.
I don’t know who came up with the idea that humans are basically good at heart. I can only imagine it’s someone who never read the news—someone who lived in a cocoon all his life. Someone who thought
was good. Perhaps one of those nurture over nature guys. You know the ones who tout the belief that we are how we’re raised? Our goodness, our badness all develop from social experience, the company we keep, the things we’re taught when we’re young. We start with a clean slate. It’s everyone else who fucks us up.
I think that mentality gives society too much credit. Really, it gives others a massive amount of control over you. It can’t be the people around me who completely shape my character, my soul. No. I’m born with it—that
—deep within the recesses of my mind, my heart, already pulsing and growing with basic goodness and evil. I have both propensities. I’m smart enough to recognize both. And if I have both, others must, too.
So maybe experience grows one more than the other. I’ll buy that. But we’re born with both, and I don’t believe they’re fifty-fifty. I think evil has the upper hand from the get-go, and living is just an exercise in learning how to control wicked impulses. A lot of us do. A lot of us don’t. The ones who don’t deserve justice. But they don’t always get it. Not fair at all, but that’s what I’ve learned—that life’s not fair. People can be cruel, evil and sadistic. It happens all the time. It happens every day at my school. They’re vultures who prey on the weak, the lonely, the broken. They intimidate and humiliate, and they always seem to get away with it.
So far, anyway.
“It ain’t a hard thing to do!” Mr. Stahl shouted.
Jeremy watched the spittle fly from his father’s lips—saliva mixed with whiskey—as he stood trapped on the opposite side of the bed. He glanced at the floor for his baseball bat, but it wasn’t there. Useless weapon tucked in the closet.
“How hard is it to make your goddamn bed, Jer?!”
He didn’t wait for a response, an explanation. He never did. He lunged for his son—his tried-and-true modus operandi—tackling him to the floor in a heap of flailing limbs and desperate grunts.
“Get off!” Jeremy yelled, pulling his body into a protective fetal position.
It was instinctual. He went for the position first, even in the last year after he started lifting weights. He knew he was stronger—not that spindly boy from two summers ago—but he still felt weak, and he was too afraid now to test the strength he’d been building. His father was larger, anyway—towering over most people at 6-foot-7. Thick as Paul Bunyan, but an embittered, alcoholic Paul Bunyan. A dangerous Paul Bunyan.
First blow to the gut. Jeremy expected it, but he kept his fists by his face. There was no way he’d expose his face again and give his father the opportunity to inflict more permanent damage. The unsightly scar he sported now resulted in years of teasing and bullying from his classmates.
Second punch to the ribs. He hissed and squirmed, trying to push his father off.
“You wanna live here? Then make your goddamn bed!”
“News flash! I don’t wanna live here!” Jeremy roared, feeling his father’s fingers wrap around his throat.
It was the surge of miraculous adrenaline one experiences when pinned beneath a car. It erupted from the force of determination—
I won’t die today!
—and exploded through his hands. He thought he lifted his father in the air and threw him clear across the room. In actuality, he punched his face hard enough to invite a few precious seconds for escape—Mr. Stahl rolling off him onto the floor.
“One, two, three, four,” Jeremy whispered. “Five.”
But he didn’t run. He sat up on his knees and glared at his dad.
“Don’t ever touch me again,” he warned.
Mr. Stahl snorted. “Tough guy now, huh?”
“I mean it, Dad.”
There was a long stretch of silence where both men studied their injuries. When Mr. Stahl sat up, Jeremy jumped to his feet, positioning his hands by his face for a fistfight.
“I know you mean it. I’ve been watching you.”
“Watching me?” Jeremy asked.
“Pumping iron. I see you. I figured one day you’d beat me to death.”
He struggled to his feet, clutching the side of his face that showed the first signs of bruising—deep purple flooding the surface of his thin, leathery skin.
“You’d deserve it,” Jeremy spat.
Mr. Stahl winced. The words stung, hurting far worse than the bruise.
“I know, son,” he whispered. He massaged his head, and Jeremy knew the hangover was fast approaching.
Just like that, the fight was over. Typical scenario: Mr. Stahl would fly into a rage, take it out on Jeremy in a matter of seconds, come to, and offer a pathetic apology. Until the next episode. It happened every time he drank.
“I, uh . . .”
Jeremy lowered his fists and pushed past his father.
“I’m sorry, Jer.”
“I know,” Jeremy replied, searching the room for his book bag.
Mr. Stahl cleared his throat. “Lemme take a look at your stomach.”
“No way.” He found the bag, shoved in a few notebooks, and headed for the front door.
“School today?” he heard his father call.
“Oh, I’d forgot,” Mr. Stahl mumbled.
Jeremy rolled his eyes as he made his way out the door. So his father wouldn’t have punched him like a piñata had he remembered today was the first day of school?
Gee, Dad, you’re so thoughtful.
He hopped on his bike and turned the street corner toward Ridgeview High. It was the only high school in the tiny town of Mountainview, Utah. Nestled at the base of the Wasatch Range, the town boasted a much larger population until T.A.C.—the largest tactical rifle accessories manufacturing company in the state—closed its doors on the heels of a corporate tax hike. Thousands of workers were laid off. Jeremy’s dad would have been among them had he not broken his back on the job a few weeks before. No need to find work. He stayed put. On his couch. Collecting beer bottles and disability checks.
The south side of the school came into view, and Jeremy hit the brakes, his heart twisting in paralyzing confliction. He hated that school and all the people in it. Except for her. He didn’t want to go in, and yet he couldn’t wait. Just to see her. She made it better, though he still felt mildly ashamed to walk the halls.
He was nineteen—too old for high school—but it wasn’t by choice. He repeated second grade, and that changed everything. At first it was cool to be older than his classmates, but that didn’t last long. The notion disappeared altogether with his unsightly scar. He thought it amazingly ordinary how children operated—scared of anything different. Scared to
different. Many followers. Few, if any, leaders. They had no legitimate reason to dislike him. They were just assholes. And nothing changed when they grew older.
He felt his mouth form the word—her name—and swallowed it whole. He didn’t want anyone to hear he loved her. It meant nothing, anyway. Love didn’t count when it was one-sided. He learned that early on. He loved a mother who abandoned him. Didn’t count. He loved a father who hit him. Didn’t count.
He parked his bike at the racks near the east entrance, locked it, and headed inside. That sterile public school smell wafted in his face as he yanked open the door. For most, the smell offered the hope of a do-over. Fresh start. Clean slate. For Jeremy, the smell suggested a chance to make right all the wrongs he’d experienced. This was the year to make right.
“Ready for another super duper year?”
He smiled at her facial expression. If anyone could show him the humor in his dire straits, Hannah could. She was as bad off as he was—just another bullied kid desperate to get out of high school.
“Is it weird that when I walked through that door, I couldn’t stop saying ‘fuck’ over and over? I mean, it was like Tourette’s. That’s weird, right?” she asked, falling in pace with Jeremy as they moved down the nearly empty hallway.
“No,” he replied. “What’s weird is that we got here early. What’s up with that? Are we trying to punish ourselves?” He paused, thinking. “We’re like those priests who beat themselves.”
“Flagellants,” Hannah said.
“How do you even remember that?” Jeremy asked.
“Because I’m a star student. Hello.”
“Hey, as long as you’ve got something going for you,” he teased.
Hannah snickered. She leaned against the locker and watched Jeremy put away his notebooks.
“I got here early so I didn’t have to listen to my parents,” she explained.
“Listen to them say what?” he asked.
Jeremy snorted with laughter.
“Now you,” Hannah said. “What’s your excuse?”
Jeremy hesitated. “I . . . I didn’t wanna listen to my dad either,” he mumbled.
Hannah narrowed her eyes. Total bullshit, but she didn’t pry.
“Like my hair?” she asked.
“I meant the blue tips,” she said. “They’re new.”
He studied her—super short spikes of blond, blue-tipped hair cradling a round head.
“You look like a medieval weapon,” he said.
She chuckled. “You’re an asshole.”
Jeremy nudged her. “You know I’m messin’. And yeah. I like the blue. Nice upgrade from last year.”
“I see you still wear your hair like a shaggy dog,” Hannah noted.
“Well, I try to look as insecure as possible,” Jeremy replied.
Hannah cracked up. “Dude, I missed you.”
“I was around this summer. Where were you?” Jeremy asked.
“Just don’t ask,” she muttered.
It wasn’t the deepest connection, but it was a connection. Hannah could be considered a friend—not a close one—but definitely someone he could hang with at school. It meant he wasn’t completely alone. Some time in tenth grade they found each other, formed a loose bond. They shared enough and left out the intimate details. For the most part, they witnessed each other’s abuse at school, anyway. There wasn’t a need to talk about it.
The hallway flooded with students, and he knew she’d be there at any second. He wanted to be alone when he saw her for the first time, just to be certain nothing in his expression betrayed his true feelings. He didn’t want Hannah asking.
Introverts were good at recognizing the subtle, nonverbal signs. Hannah knew Jeremy was done talking and needed space. She lightly punched his arm.
“I’m out,” she said, and walked off.
He steeled himself and waited.
Regan stood in front of the full-length mirror assessing her first-day-of-school outfit.
“I pretty much hate everything that’s going on here,” she said aloud. She fingered the fabric of her conservative blouse and crinkled her nose. “Boring.”
She looked like a Brooks Brothers advertisement: not her style. Somehow, in the space of becoming a popular boy’s girlfriend, she morphed into a preppy girl—boat shoes, salmon-color button-ups, even shorts featuring embroidered sailboats.
“I have anchors on my shorts,” she said to the mirror.
She paused and waited for her reflection to reply. Nothing. Just staring.
“I have anchors on my shorts!” she screamed.
“True,” her mom said, standing in the doorway to her room. The tiniest bit of amusement danced around her lips. “Is there something wrong with that?”
“Why did you and dad buy me these clothes?” Regan demanded.
“Because you asked us to,” Mrs. Walters replied.
“Why didn’t you say no?”
Mrs. Walters was silent for a moment.
“Honey, I don’t know what’s going on here,” she confessed finally. “Is this a first-day-of-school freak-out moment? Should I have expected it? What do you need me to do? What can I do? How do we fix this?”
Regan grinned in spite of her agitation. “I’m not freaking out. It’s just, Mom, you know me. You know
isn’t me,” she said, grabbing a handful of shirt.
“Are you for real right now?” Regan asked. “You know it’s not!” She picked up her mother’s vintage Jem and the Holograms T slung over her desk chair and thrust it under her mother’s nose. “
“Jem? You’re Jem?”
“You know I’m totally Jem! I’ve been Jem since fifth grade. I was Jem before the ’80s even came back into style!”
“Mom, don’t say ‘truth’. You’re too old.”
“Man, I keep forgetting that,” Mrs. Walters teased.
Regan turned back to the mirror. “I don’t wear button-up shirts and pink Sperrys. Sperrys don’t go with fishnets.”
“Please don’t wear fishnets on your first day of school.”
“Dang it, Mom.”
“Okay, I’m really listening. I promise.” Mrs. Walters plopped onto Regan’s bed and studied her eldest daughter.
Regan ran her fingers through her thick brown hair. By now, it had grown to the middle of her back. She kept it simple: long, sweeping bangs with a few layers. Identical to every popular girl’s hairstyle.
“I should chop it,” she said. “I’m sick of it. I should chop it all off.”
Mrs. Walters pursed her lips. “Are we talking a bob or a pixie cut?”
“Sinead O’Connor,” Regan replied, her eyes big and glossy—physical signs of a not-so-well-thought-out resolution.
“Oh, dear. First, how do you even know who she is? Second, please don’t do that.”
“It’s obvious you’re having an identity crisis,” Mrs. Walters said.