Authors: Nancy A. Collins
Nancy A. Collins
The fourth period bell rang, marking the time for lunch. Skinner Cade exited Mr. Stowe's math class and joined his fellow students in the halls of Choctaw County High School. At fifteen, he was somewhat undersized for his age. Slight of chest and narrow of waist, with coal black hair and an olive complexion, he stood out among the raw-boned, fair-haired sons of the local farmers. But his most unusual features were his whiskey-colored eyes and third digits on both hands as long as his middle fingers.
Skinner fumbled with the combination on his locker, trying hard not to look in the direction of Mary Beth Walchanski, who was two doors down from him. Mary Beth was a year older than Skinner and the clearly marked property of Deke Johnson, star quarterback for the Choctaw Braves. She was also notorious for provoking Deke's jealousy by rubbing herself against lower classmen.
Despite his knowing all this, it was difficult not to pay attention to her, as her breasts strained against her sweater, permanently warping the big felt C stitched on its front, and her buttocksâmade rock-hard by a regimen of human pyramids and side splitsâflexed like those of a jungle cat while she rooted through the tangle of YA novels, iPod ear buds and discarded junk jewelry that cluttered her locker. When she straightened up and smiled at him, Skinner quickly averted his eyes, but it was too late.
“Hey, you're kinda cuteâfor a little guy.” Her breath was redolent of Juicy Fruit and Cotton Candy Pink Lip Gloss. As she stepped closer, one of her breasts brushed Skinner's elbow. He jerked his arm back as if burned. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise as sweat sprang from his palms. “You've got really interesting eyes. Has anyone told you that?”
“Umânot in those words, no.”
Mary Beth affected a little pout. “What's the matter? Don't you like me?”
“Uh, sure I like you, I guess,” he muttered.
“Really?” she giggled, leaning in close and batting her eyelashes.
Before Skinner could answer there was a hand the size of a catcher's mitt clamped on his shoulder, spinning him around. “What's goin' on here, Piss Eyes?”
Deke Johnson was as big and mean as they came, on or off the schoolyard. Tall, athletic, blonde and loutish, he was the bane of all those less popular than himself. And you couldn't get more unpopular at Choctaw County High than Skinner Cade.
“I'm talkin' to you, space case! You gonna answer me or what?”
Skinner was struck dumb by fear and embarrassment. He couldn't speak at that precise moment even if someone shoved burning bamboo splinters under his fingernails. He stared mutely at Deke, towering over him like a wrathful Adonis tricked out in a letter jacket and an Ozzy T-shirt.
“Wassamatter, Piss Eyes? Cat got your tongue?” Deke slammed the flat of his palm against Skinner's collarbone, knocking him against the lockers and sending his textbooks flying. Deke's lips pulled into a sneer. “Or maybe it ain't pussy you're sniffing for? Izzat it, Piss Eyes? You queer?”
Deke turned to the crowd that had gathered to observe the ritual scapegoating. “Hey! Ol' Piss Eyes here is a cock-licker!”
Skinner bit his lower lip to keep it from trembling as he bent to retrieve his books, only to have Deke slap them from his hands again before he could straighten up.
“I asked you a question, Piss Eyes. Are you queer?” He all but spat the word out.
“No,” Skinner replied emphatically.
“Then what are you doin' talkin' to my girl?”
Skinner shook his head and tried, for a second time, to pick up his books, only to have Deke's kneecap smash into his face, throwing him onto the floor. Skinner lay dazed on his side, surrounded by his scattered homework. He could taste his own blood, hot and coppery, at the back of his throat. Everyone was laughing at him. Especially Deke, who stood with one arm around Mary Beth's waist.
Skinner touched his face and stared at the fresh red wetness smearing his fingers â¦ And Changed.
The fear was gone. In its place was a hot, pulsing rage that made his bones crack and muscles squirm. He wasn't exactly sure when his tormenters' laughter turned into screams.
Skinner was on Deke in a whirlwind of fur, fang and claw, the quarterback's blandly handsome face as stunned as that of a pole-axed steer. Deke's letter jacket shredded like tissue paper under Skinner's talons. As he closed his fangs on his prey's larynx the bully's blood and screams leapt into his mouth.
After he finished with the torn body, Skinner stood up on crooked hind legs and fixed Mary Beth with a lambent gaze. The cheerleader cowered against the lockers, too paralyzed by her terror to flee. He took her from behind in the blood-drenched hallway, his hairy thighs slapping against her naked rump, snarling in reply to her whimpers of pain. As he felt orgasm bearing down on him, it suddenly occurred to him that this wasn't how it happened at all.
He woke up with a dry mouth and a sticky crotch. The dream, with its bloodlust and sexual frenzy, was still fresh in his mind. Skinner didn't know whether to be disgusted or worried. Was it simply adolescent wish fulfillment or something worse?
The dream had followed reality to the most agonizing detailâup to a point. Needless to say, he hadn't turned into a furry, sharp-toothed demon that day, nor had he killed Deke and raped Mary Beth.
But the sight of his own blood had triggered something inside him. Driven by a mindless rage, he had launched himself at the bigger boy, surprising everyone with the ferocity of his attack. He succeeded in bloodying Deke's nose before the quarterback pummeled him into the ground. In the end the fight resembled the scene in Cool Hand Luke where Paul Newman gets beat to a pulp, except in his case nobody begged Skinner to stay down. But that was the last time anyone tried to physically bully him at school.
Skinner tossed aside his bedclothes, pausing to listen to his roomie's snoring before getting up. He guessed he should feel lucky Boehner was actually asleep this time and not beating off. His reason for attending Arkansas State University, instead of the University of Arkansas at Monticello, which was closer to home, was his desire to be exposed to a different people from different places, and to take part in an exchange of ideas and knowledge. But with two semesters under his belt he had come to realize college wasn't much different than Choctaw County High.
His roommate was a fat, nearsighted nerd whoâwhen he wasn't doing things like making microwave popcorn or watching TVâwas either drinking beer or pulling his pud. As far as Skinner could tell, Boehner didn't attend classes as he never seemed to leave the dorm room. At first Skinner found his roomie's constant presence aggravating, but over the weeks he'd learned to fall asleep to the sound of Boehner's one hand clapping. Still, this was hardly the intellectual and cultural stimulation he'd hoped for out of college.
He quickly removed his soiled briefs and stuffed them into the plastic trash bag he kept in the closet for dirty laundry. He looked at the digital clock next to his bed as he replaced them with a clean pair. Almost six-thirty. His first class was at nine. He might as well stay up and do some reading before getting ready for the day â¦
The knock was loud enough to shake Boehner from his snoring. Skinner opened the door and peered out cautiously into the hall. His room was at the very end of the third floor, separated from the common room and showers by a gauntlet of jocks and ROTC gung-hos. Naturally, he and Boehner often were the butt of practical jokes involving shaving cream, bags of warm lemon Jell-O and human excrement.
He was surprised to see the dorm rep for his floor standing there in his pajama bottoms. The rep was a senior classman assigned to handle the various disputes among the students living on the third floor and had a corner room with its own private shower and toilet. He was rarely glimpsed by anyone else living in the dorm.
“You got a phone call.”
“Yeah. What's this about?”
Skinner knew it was bad news. His family could barely afford to send him to college, much less splurge for luxuries like a phone in his dorm room.
The receiver was sitting off the hook in the rep's room. The older student was trying not to look put-upon, but wasn't doing a good job of it. Skinner picked up the receiver, his guts cinched tighter than a poor man's belt.
“Skinner, that you, son?” It was his mother's husband's voice.
“Luke? What's wrong?”
“It's your mama, son. She's in a bad way. She had another one of her spells last night. She's in the hospital over in Lake Village. The doctor says it's only a matter of time â¦”
“Luke, I'm studying for Finals â¦”
“She's askin' for you.”
Skinner sighed and nodded his head, even though Luke wasn't there to see it. “I'll get there as soon as I can. I'll take the next bus out â¦”
“I'll tell her you're on your way.”
“Lukeâ? Tell her I love her, okay? Just in case â¦”
“I'll be sure to do that for you.”
Skinner was acutely aware of being stared at. He looked up at the rep standing over him, arms folded, a look of mild curiosity on his sleepy features.
“Soâsomething happen back on the farm?”
“My mother's dying.”
The upper classman's features tried to arrange themselves into a generic sympathetic expression. “Really? Sorry to hear that, Cade.â¦”
“Yeah. Thanks for letting me use the phone.” Skinner hurried out of the room, not wanting Spencer to see the tears building in the corners of his eyes. When he got back to his room, Boehner was beating off.
It was almost noon when the bus left Jonesboro. There was no such thing as a direct drive to Choctaw County, unless you had your own car, so Skinner had to travel first to Memphis, then change busses for one that looped through rural Mississippi, re-entering Arkansas via the Greenville Bridge and threading its way through the southeast quadrant of the state before reaching Little Rock. By the time the reached his hometown, it would be ten o'clock at night.
Skinner shifted uncomfortably in his seat and stared out the window, watching what passed for scenery on the Interstate? ash by: cow in pasture, exit sign for West Memphis, burned-out car on shoulder, gas station, cow in pasture. He hated riding the bus. It somehow managed to stink of cigarettes, even though smoking was prohibited, and the constant hum of the highway made his teeth ache.
He closed his eyes to the endless succession of road kill and gas stations and saw his mother, fragile and pale as a china doll, lying on her back in a hospital bed, monitored by machines that crowded around her like vultures watching a gazelle breathe its last. She seemed to be looking at something or someone Skinner couldn't see. Maybe it was her doctor, or Luke. Whoever it was, she seemed to be arguing with them. Skinner could see her lips moving. If he concentrated real hard, he could almost make out what she was saying.
“No â¦ Not yet â¦ I've got to tell him â¦ he's got to know â¦ time â¦ there isn't enough â¦ please â¦”
Then she stopped talking to whoever it was and looked right at Skinner, piercing the time and space that divided them, and spoke his name.
He woke with a brief, startled cry that made the old lady riding across the aisle from him give him a dirty look. He muttered a lame apology under his breath and hurried to the restroom in the back of the bus. He locked himself in and sat on the lid of the toilet with his head between his knees, and sobbed until his ribcage hurt.
His mother was dead.
“I should have been there when it happened.”
“There was nothing you could do about that, Skinner,” Luke Blackwell grunted, tugging at the tie cinched against his Adam's apple. “You and I both know thatâso did she,” he nodded in the direction of the open casket in the viewing parlor of Lovejoy's Funeral Home.
“Still, I'm her sonâher only child. I should have been with her.â¦”
“You're with her now, seeing that she's said goodbye to proper.” Luke plucked at the cuffs of his jacket again. The suit he'd bought at K-Mart to get married in hadn't fit him all that well in the first place and five years hadn't helped it get any better.
Skinner nodded, trying not to look at the big mahogany box and what lay inside it. “I just wish I could have told her â¦ told her â¦” He tried to say the words but his throat was swelling shut around them. He lowered his head so that the tears would drop straight onto his shoes instead of rolling down his cheeks.
Luke's work-calloused hand closed on Skinner's shoulder and gave it a comforting squeeze. “She knew, son. Believe me, she knew.” He grimaced and glanced up at the speakers hidden away in the cornucopia sported by a pair of plaster of Paris cherubs. “Lord, I hate organ music!”