an excerpt from
Feral Little Gods
by Cathy Rosoff
Copyright © 2014 by Cathy Rosoff and published here with her permission
To live past a certain age is obscene.
The woods on the estate of Isaiah Steed were a strange magical place.
Walk about an acre into them, and you would find a labyrinthine maze of diagonal glossy wooden planks that interconnected the trees. Some were so steep they extended from high above the base of one tree and ended near the base of another. If you peered and tried to see the maze’s end, you wouldn’t be able to. To do that,you would have to walk about a quarter of a mile. If you followed their eyes up the final plank, up fifty feet, you would see built into the final maze-ending tree a tree house like no tree house you had ever seen. Constructed in a twisty bendy shape that melded with the branches and trunk of the tree in an exaggerated version of the Art Nouveau style, it looked like it would have been at home in the pages of a gothic fairy tale, particularly on this spring full-moon-illuminated night.
And just as its exterior looked like something from a storybook, so did its interior, both its inhuman and human. Sleeping on a low Oriental-style bed swathed in velvet and silks like little princes lay two little eight-year-old boys. One had skin the color of honey and wavy hair nearly the same shade of gold as the eyes hidden beneath his closed lids. The other had auburn-tinged brown hair, a round unusually high-cheekboned face as pure and perfect and ethereal a white as the moon outside, a plump little rosebud mouth the pink of a peony, and huge pale, silver eyes that flashed the color of lightning when he was excited. This was the color they were now as they flicked back and forth under the eyelids torturously sealed shut over them. His cheeks flushed hot pink as he flatly murmured the word, “no.”
One “no” became, two, then three. Tossing his head back and forth, his voice rose as he said, “I don’t want to go.” He then fell so silent and still he seemed dead. A second passed, then another, until the word “no” came out of his mouth so loudly the eyes of the boy beside him snapped open as his tan face blanched beige.
“Nononononono. I don’t want to go.”
Even as he nudged the thrashing boy’s shoulder, then grasped it, he could not wake him. When he pinned down his other shoulder, the boy began to struggle.
“Sascha, it’s me.”
The boy only struggled more violently.
“Get off me!” the boy yelled.
As his eyelids snapped open, their eyes locked. But before he could pull away his hands, the boy only began struggling more.
“Sascha – it’s me, Christian.”
Sascha knocked Christian’s chest with his forearm.
“Get off of me!”
“Sascha, it’s okay, it’s me—it’s Christian.”
Sascha began punching Christian’s chest. He let him for a couple seconds, but then he began doing it so hard Christian had to remove his hands from Sascha’s body to shield his own. After fending off a few punches with his arms, he left himself open as he extended his hands toward Sascha’s face.
“Sascha, it’s Christian.”
When he reached Sascha’s face he took it in his hands roughly. “Look in my eyes!”
Sascha’s eyes became stiller as a violent glaze dropped over them.
“Look in my eyes.” His face was now as close to Sascha’s as it could be without actually touching it. He dropped his voice to a whisper and repeated, “Look in my eyes.”
Sascha’s eyes became strangely blank. Christian then dropped his voice so low it was almost inaudible. “Look in my eyes.”
Slowly Sascha’s eyes began blinking again as the pink drained from his cheeks and his jaw loosened.
When he saw Sascha was fully awake, as he slowly dropped his hands from his face, he said softly, “Go outside.”
“Go outside? Why?”
“Go outside and build a fire.”
“Go outside and build a fire and wait for me to come out.”
A touch of fear began to prick Sascha’s quizzical face.
“Will you do that for me?”
“Because I want you to.”
Sascha stared at him dumbly.
“Will you go outside and build a fire and wait for me to come out because I want you to? Will you do that for me?”
Hearing his Louis Quinze grandfather clock chime eleven times, Isaiah Steed had to look outside his study’s window to see whether it was eleven in the morning or night. Looking out at the black sky through his study’s window, the still handsome but once almost femininely beautiful Steed didn’t recognize the painfully thin angular sixty-year-old face staring back at him. He had always had an only semi-unconscious loathing of the old, ever since the old biddies would sit on their benches and watch him be beaten to a pulp by his older brother and his cronies like it was a matinee when he was a friendless young boy growing up in the slums of London.
To live past a certain age is obscene.
A great writer had written that once, but he couldn’t remember who. One of the Russians, he was pretty sure. Dostoyevsky maybe.
He has the face of a starving, cruel feline.
A bad writer had once written that, and he definitely remembered which one: the author of Atlantic City magazine’s cover story, “Isaiah Steed: The Henry Higgins of Atlantic City?” about the building of the Hotel Parnassus.
The knock on the door pricked his slack spine, roughly pushing his back straight up. A little too loudly he said, “Come in.”
His pretty twenty-eight-year-old African maid came in with a sterling silver tea tray.
“Lillianne, I’ve told you a thousand times you don’t need to stay awake just because I am,” he said in the subtly snappish voice of someone trying to hide his irritation, but simply too exhausted to fully succeed.
“I know, sir, but I—I was awake anyway—I couldn’t sleep—and I thought you—well I was getting some tea—some tea for myself so—when I was saw you were still in here I figured you might like some coffee.”
Seeing his eyes had returned to his work, as she passed the model of the Art Nouveau-inspired Hotel Parnassus she discretely fondled it.
As Christian walked toward the fire Sascha had made, Sascha eyed the black plastic shopping bag he was carrying.
“What’s in the bag?”
Sitting on the other side of the fire so he was facing him, Christian didn’t answer. Sascha opened his mouth to repeat the question before realizing Christian had to have heard him.
As Christian crossed his legs Indian-style, Sascha did the same.
Christian looked up from his lap and then looked up into Sascha’s eyes. Sascha silently did the same, as if he could read the contents of the bag in them. He wondered whether the nausea that was spreading through his belly was from excitement or fear.
“What’s—what’s in the—”
“Do you remember that story that Uncle Isaiah read to us a long time ago? I don’t remember the name of it, but it was the one about the two brothers, and if one was hurt the other one would feel it?”
“You mean The Corsican Brothers? What does—”
“What do you mean it’s true?”
“It can be true. If two people . . . are close enough . . . one can feel the other’s pain.”
“Christian, what are you talking about? That’s physically impossib—”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
“Christian what are you talk—”
“Remember that time, at the beginning of the school year, when I was over your house and a little after your dad came home from work he said he wanted to talk to you alone, so you went off with him and you were gone for about—”
“Yeah,” Sascha snapped, his cheeks flushing. “What does that have to do with any—”
“You were a floor below me. But I knew, I knew from the look in his eyes when he came in to your room what was going to happen.”
“So now you’re a psych—”
“I knew what was going to happen. And I knew, he wasn’t going to keep you away for long—that would make me suspicious, so I could kind of figure at what point it was gonna start—”
“I felt it.”
“What the hell do you mean you—”
“I felt it.” Thrusting his face closer to the fire, his wolf eyes glittered fiercely as he smiled a tiny, nostril-flaring smile. “I felt it like it was happening to me. I don’t mean I just felt sad because my brother was being hurt. I mean I actually felt it. My face actually began stinging.”
Sascha just stared at Christian as his smile broadened and his teeth grit so tightly that his jaw began to shake. “Do you understand?”
Sascha began to shake his head, but then just looked at him with utter confusion.
“Uncle Isaiah said that we can do anything. With our minds— anything. A brilliant mind can accomplish anything, that’s what he says, right? So why can’t we do this?”
“Do what Chri—” Sascha’s eyes wandered to the bag Christian was rifling through. “Do what Christian?”
Christian pulled a shaker of salt out of the bag.
“Do you remember that thing Isaiah told us about his last trip to Africa?”
Lillianne’s stomach tightened as she poured coffee for her glassy-eyed employer of ten years. What concerned her more, she didn’t know—seeing Steed so exhausted or not seeing him more exhausted.
Her eyes wandered to her watch. Steed had entered his study nearly twenty-four hours earlier. Seeing the cup was about three quarters of the way full, she began to tip back the spout of the pot.
“No. Keep going.”
“But there won’t be enough room left for the mi—”
“I’m not taking it with milk tonight, I’m taking it black.”
“But I thought you couldn’t stand it black, even with sug—”
“I can’t, Lillianne—but I won’t be able to stay awake if I don’t drink a whole cu—Lillianne, I really don’t want to have to explain my—” Realizing he was shouting, he stopped himself. A tiny crack edged into his tight voice. “I’m sorry, Lillianne, I’m just under a lot of pressure right now.” He was too tired to notice he didn’t usually give Lillianne such confidences.
With a giddy casualness she replied, “I—I—know. Maybe if you could just learn just to—chill out a bit—”
The coffee pot and cup flew across the room.
“Is that what I need?! To chill out. Well, I’m sure you must know with your infinite experience with high-pressure work—with the kind of work where lives—where whole futures—hang in the balance- I’m sure you of all people would understand that.”
Seeing Lillianne scurrying toward to the broken cup and pot, he snapped back to reality. A queasy remorse began slithering through him.
“I’m sorry, Lillianne I—”
Lillianne gave a pert solemn nod of her head. Staring at her back, he wondered if she was crying. She dropped to the floor and began picking up the shards of the cup.
“Lillianne, you don’t need to do that.”
“Lillianne, leave it.” Catching himself, he tried to make his voice as gentle as he could in his current state. With his voice it was never easy. An unnamed employee had been quoted in an article about him that he had a voice that had the effect on the ears that a quickly downed shot of ice-cold expensive vodka had on the tongue.
“You can clean it up tomorrow.”
“It will stain tomorrow. The coffee will stain the floors.”
“I’ll deal with it.”
“You have work to do. Go back to your work. Let me clean this up and get you some more coffee.”
He desperately wanted her to leave, but he had a sense it would be easier to let her stay and do as she wished. He was too tired to take anything but the path of least resistance. Steed wondered, as he often did, whether Lillianne was a simpleton or a genius. After ten years, he still didn’t know. He sometimes felt he was even less sure now than he had been a decade earlier. He also had an odd random gut suspicion that she was a virgin.
After a few torturous moments, Steed realized he would indeed have to return to his work if he intended to let her stay and clean up the mess he had made. Turning back to his desk, he looked back down at the mountain of papers to which he had been attending. Yet he just stared at them. After a few seconds, without looking up from them he said, “You know, Lillianne, in my life, in my personal life, there’s never been anyone—you know, in my adult personal life—who has been in it as long as you. . . . Even my wife didn’t stick around as long as you have. ”
He waited for her to respond, but she said nothing. As he didn’t know how he wanted her to respond, he didn’t know whether that relieved or saddened him. He wondered whether her silence might have been provoked by the fact that his beautiful young wife of five years had only failed to “stick around” because four years earlier she had died at the age of thirty-eight.
A man who is not attractive to women is nothing.
A fascist dictator had said that once. Which one, he couldn’t quite remember. One of the really bad ones. Mussolini, maybe. He suddenly noticed that he could no longer hear Lillianne in the room anymore. He couldn’t even hear her breathing. Yet he hadn’t heard her leave.
Looking up from his work, he found her catatonically gazing out of the window. Her ankle was shaking, twitching.
“What is it, Lillianne?”
She didn’t respond, she didn’t even seem to register that she had heard him. He began to fear she might be having a seizure of some sort.
She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“What is it?” he involuntarily snapped.
She mutely pointed her finger out the window.
He walked over to it Looking out it himself, his eyes darkened as he grit his teeth.
“Lillianne—if you would—I would like you to leave and go up to your room. Go to bed. Get some sleep.”
He heard her stand up, but he couldn’t hear her leaving.
“But what about the co—”
“Just leave it!”
“Okay now go again. Go again, Sascha.”
The blood-soiled pocket knife was still in Sascha’s shaking hand. Christian grabbed his hand and pulled it toward his extended forearm, which was disfigured by a fresh inch-wide cut.
Sascha just looked mutely down at Christian’s arm as he poised the knife over it. He began to raise his eyes toward Christian’s.
Sascha’s eyes froze.
“Don’t look u—”
His eyes wavered up a bit.
“Don’t. Keep away from my eyes,” Christian snapped, flashing back to what had happened with the deer that time, before catching himself and softening his voice. “Don’t look up, look down.”
Sascha slowly lowered his eyes.
“That’s it . . . that’s it . . . just keep your eyes on my arm.”
His hand still shaking, Sascha began gingerly cutting across Christian’s forearm right below the previous cut. His arm remaining dead still, Christian sharply inhaled as Sascha slashed the knife gingerly a quarter-inch across his arm, then swiftly withdrew it.
Sascha would not continue.
Beginning again, so still was Christian’s arm that gradually, as Sascha worked the blade across his arm, he began to feel like he was just cutting a slab of meat.
“That’s it . . . that’s it,” Christian whispered encouragingly through silently gritted teeth over and over again, his voice becoming softer and softer as Sascha needed less and less of his encouragement. Once the cut was as long as the one above it, Christian relaxed his arm. Correctly taking this as a sign he could stop, Sascha dropped the knife beside him as if it were poisoned.
Christian wanted to see if he would do the next step on his own.
After a couple seconds of watching Sascha stare into his lap, however, Christian knew he would not.
“What are you waiting for?”
Sascha looked up at him.
Sascha hesitantly turned to the salt shaker beside him. After staring it down for a moment, he picked it up.
“Christian, I can—”
“Yes, you can you little bab—”
Sascha quickly whipped around to Christian and began shaking salt onto his wounds. He kept salting them and salting them and salting them until he heard Christian breathe in the quivering way people do when they are about to cry. But when he stopped and looked up at him, his eyes were dry. He whispered, “Now the last thing.”
Sascha just stared at him glassy-eyed. The pupils of Christian’s eyes were weirdly wide and tight and still.
“Now the last thing.”
Dropping his eyes back onto his arm, Sascha grabbed the bottle of rubbing alcohol and began pouring it on the arm.
This time, Christian’s arm leapt a few inches. Sascha began to stop.
Sascha continued but looked up at him.
“I told you not to look up.”
“How can you take it? How can you not cry or scream?”
An almost fiercely beatific smile slowly spread onto Christian’s face. “Haven’t you seen yet?” he whispered. “Haven’t you seen what I’ve been trying to show you? You’re not hurting
me—” His eyes began glistening with an almost religious ecstasy. “You’re hurting you . . . Don’t you see? . . . Sascha? . . . Sascha? What’s wrong? You’re shaking. You’re turning green . . . Oh my Go—Uncle Isaiah . . . I’m s—It was me I told him to d-do it. It was—”
With the brutal swiftness of a falcon, Steed crouched down before Christian so they were face-to-face. But he said nothing; he just looked into his eyes as if desperately seeking an answer to a riddle, his roving gaze more torturous than anything he might have said. It showed fury, disgust, and a possible hint of sadness, yet in no way that revealed, even the tiniest bit, what was to come next.
Roughly grabbing Christian’s shoulders, he yelled in a voice so rage-engorged its crack was unnoticeable, “Why?!”
“I was trying to show him that those brothers—you know in the story—were real.”
“The one where one brother is hurt and the other one can feel it and can see when the other is about to be hur—?”
“I wanted him to know that if we willed ourselves to, we could be like them, and if we could, then neither of us would have to be afrai—”
“Please, Uncle Isaiah!”
Shaking his head manically, Sascha’s eyes started welling up with tears. In a voice so low it was softer than a whisper, he squeaked, “P-please don’t—please don’t tell my father.”
He crawled over to Steed like a frightened animal. Tugging on the bottom of his sweater, he pleaded, “Please don’t. Please don’t tell him.”
Collapsing onto his chest, he cried, “Please don’t.”
Sascha put his arms around him as if he was holding onto him for dear life.
“I won’t.” Patting his shoulder, Steed softly repeated, “I won’t. It’s . . . okay.”
“Shhhh . . . shhhh . . . it’s gonna be okay,” Christian said, rubbing his back. Looking up at his uncle with slight panic he said, “Tell him it’s going to be okay, Uncle Isaiah.”
A confused-looking Steed looked down hesitantly at his nephew’s “brother.” “It’s going to be okay, Sascha,” he repeated. Like a person holding a baby for the first time, Steed finally gingerly hugged him back.
As Sascha’s body grew slack and whatever tears he had been able to hold back poured out of him, Steed turned his face so neither boy could see it.
He then rubbed his eyes and blinked the tears out of them.
“You could become a feral little god . . .”
Sascha was starving. Everyone else was eating, but he couldn’t.
At the moment, the ten-year-old B-former was the only one who sat in his classroom, including Reverend Stone himself. Reverend Stone had been letting Sascha spend his lunch period in his classroom since the beginning of the year. He only allowed him to do so, however, on one condition: that he not eat in the classroom. With the exception of the cafeteria or in a class where a special class party was taking place, students were not allowed to eat inside at Oxitern Academy.
This basically meant that Sascha did not get to eat during lunch period. He had been able to eat during the occasions he was given the opportunity to be outside while traveling from certain classes to others. But then apparently a problem had developed with people littering food and food containers on the campus, so a month earlier the rules had been changed so that Oxitern students were forbidden to eat or drink anywhere on campus outside of the aforementioned places. If caught, the punishment was a detention— a Friday detention for lower- and middle-schoolers, and as there was no such thing as a Friday detention for them, a Saturday detention for upper-schoolers. Now Sascha had to wait until the end of the school day to eat.
He was fortunate enough, however, to not have to watch Reverend Stone eat. Though he likely could, Reverend Stone did not eat in his classroom either during lunch period.
Normally, Sascha would have been doing some of his homework. B-formers, Oxitern’s equivalent of fifth-graders, were normally assigned around three hours a night, so he felt the time was simply too precious to waste. When he had tried to do it however, he was too spaced out. A few months earlier in the beginning of the school year, Sascha had become plagued with stomach problems that had increased in frequency and severity over time. The last time he had been able to eat was a few bites of dinner the previous night.
Knowing that morning that by this point he would have not eaten in nearly twenty-four hours, he knew he might be unable to do his homework at this lunch period and had brought Sir Simon, who currently sat atop his desk, along with him to school.
His taxidermy hobby had ended with Uncle Isaiah’s death the previous school year. He had not, however, gotten rid of his only untransformed specimen: a baby fox. It had been lying in a special freezer he used to store his carcasses and kept in the basement for over a year. Christian, as he often did, had hunted it just for him on one of his many hunting expeditions with Isaiah. Christian had even given him his prize kill, a bobcat, which made Christian’s eyes glitter just at the sight of, to keep and mount. When Uncle Isaiah had died, Sascha couldn’t bring himself to remove the fox from the freezer and begin to transform it, but he couldn’t bring himself to remove it and throw it away either. And so the fox had laid in its freezer coffin in the bowels of his home unseen and untouched for months on end. But then suddenly, Sascha had developed a strong inexplicable urge to mount it.
He decided to “make” him Sir Simon Whitwell, the owner of the taxidermy knife Uncle Isaiah had given Sascha the summer of third grade. The knife was a stunning thing. Custom-made to its owner’s specifications, it had a real jade handle and the type of curved tip that made it what taxidermists called a “perfect knife.” Carved into the jade was a picture of a scowling curly-haired young little boy imperiously holding aloft a huge, writhing snake in each of his tiny hands. The boy was Baby Hercules, son of Zeus. The snakes were the murder weapons his stepmother Hera had sent into his crib to try to kill him. Isaiah had told him nothing of the knife’s owner or origins when he had given it to him. Had he had never found the old auction catalog in Steed’s attic, he would have never known who its owner even was or that its opening bid price was five thousand dollars. He wondered about the man who could drive someone to spend thousands of dollars to just own a taxidermy knife of his, so that night he went on the Internet and typed in his name.
Three pages of websites had come up about the eighteenth-century British nobleman with a “rapier-like brilliance” and a “face of an angel” so beautiful it drew “many a female to obsession and many a male to violence.” After his death at age twenty-two in a duel, he would be immortalized by his posthumously published diaries, which would turn him into an underground cult figure. Sascha had read the diaries of the once “almost sexually” devout Christian twice.
He had also been able to find a picture of “Sir Simon,” as he had come to think of him, on an Internet site and printed it out. According to the site, the picture was painted by a society artist when Sir Simon was eighteen and was the only one that existed of him. When he had first looked at it, Sascha had thought that Sir Simon, with his halo of white-blond curls and an almost girlish prettiness, really did have a face of an angel. He, in fact, would have kind of looked like a grown-up version of those cherubs in those old museum paintings had it not been for his coal-black eyes. And so he had glued into the fox’s emptied eye sockets the pair of neon red- and green-laced smoky raven stones Steed had given him about a year before his death. Sascha knew they were real black opals but let Steed think he didn’t know they were, just as he let him think he hadn’t known about the rubies and sapphires and countless other stones he had given him for his animals over time.
With the picture of Sir Simon poised beside him, he was studying Sir Simon’s clothes as he designed in a notebook the costume he would make and put on his own Sir Simon. Within minutes, however, Sascha saw that Sir Simon was proving no easier to concentrate on than his homework in his current mind-state, particularly since he was now suffering from a headache.
As his headache became splitting and his stomach began to hurt, he realized there was a chance he might have in his knapsack the remains of a grilled vegetable sandwich he had purchased after school the previous week. Diving into his bag he quickly found half of it. Unwrapping the sandwich, he saw that one of the red peppers sticking out from the bread was rotten. Too hungry to care, he immediately raised it to his lips.
Yet just as his lips were about to touch it, however his eyes met the wall clock and he realized Reverend Stone would be back soon. He returned it to his knapsack. He then realized that the clock was five minutes slow, and that he could easily eat the sandwich before Stone returned. But as he pulled it out again, it didn’t make it past his chest before he put it down on the desk. He looked down at his knapsack, then at the trash can in the corner. Picking it up, he slowly walked over to the trash can and with great difficulty, threw it out.
Once he returned to his desk, he continued to work on Sir Simon, despite his difficulty doing so, for need of something to do and because it was easier than doing his homework.
“You know Norman Bates was a taxidermist.”
Sascha flinched as Stone’s heavy voice landed upon him.
“Oh, I’m sorry Reverend Stone, you surprised me.”
A slight lightheadedness washed over him, and a sharp pain knifed his stomach as he looked up at the forty-six-year-old Stone’s unusually tall and broad looming form.
“Who’s Norman Bates?”
Stone jokily began humming the Psycho theme as he mimicked stabbing someone with a knife. Noticing the confusion in Sascha’s eyes, he explained with a laugh, “He’s one of cinema’s most infamous killers.”
Sascha’s eyes lit up, but his smile was shaky.
“A very shy nerdy man who no one was afraid of—until, that is, he stabbed a very pretty lady in the shower.”
Sascha’s smile grew queasy as he gave a laugh that turned soundless a millisecond after it escaped his mouth. He then looked up at Stone silently with dumb, glassy eyes.
“Are you all right, Silverman?”
“Uh . . .”
“Um I . . . I wa—”
“I—uh—I’m just a bit tired. . . . Didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“Warm milk’s the thing for that,” Stone said, heading to his desk.
“Oh yeah. . . I’ve heard about that,” Sascha replied. before returning to his work.
He returned to his work as Stone propped up his massive feet up on his desk and opened a tattered hardcover library book.
Sascha watched him read for a few seconds, then asked,
“Um, what are you reading?”
“A biography of General Patton,” he answered without looking up.
The faint, cool, cryptic bemusement that seemed to permanently inhabit Stone’s dull brown eyes appeared to slide into his smile as he said this. Sascha saw that the book’s cover had the word “Patton” sprawled across it in large letters.
“Is it, uh . . . good?”
“Yes . . . so far.”
Sascha thought about maybe asking him something more about Norman Bates, but then decided against it. He returned to his work.
After a couple of minutes, he turned back to him again.
“Uh, Reverend Stone?”
“I, uh . . . wanted to ask you something.”
“What is it?”
As Stone looked up from his book back at him, Sascha suddenly felt trapped.
“Well, uh . . .”
Stone broadened the small smile that often seemed to Sascha to be etched onto his strong lantern-jawed face; one that seemed to say “don’t be shy.”
“Well . . . I was wondering about something. . . . I’m uh . . . studying the Book of Revelations in religion class right now—”
“You have who?”
“Reverend Crowe for Religion . . . Reverend Crowe. . . . Well, anyway . . . I had always thought that Satan and the Antichrist and the Beast were the same thing—the devil—and that the devil lived in hell, and 666 was the mark of the devil. But then we learned that actually the Antichrist and the Beast are the same thing—and that 666 is the mark of him, but that Satan is something else, that the Antichrist—or Beast—is actually the henchman of Satan, perhaps even his son, and that neither Satan nor the Antichrist live in hell—until, that is, they lose Armageddon after the Antichrist comes to rule the world after he rises out of the water with the Scarlet Woman on his ba—”
“I know the story, Silverman,” he replied, his smile having become gently patronizing. He raked a hand through his kinky graying sandy-blond hair. “So what’s your question?”
“Well . . . when I found that out . . . I was really surprised—but it turned out that so was everyone else in the class, even though I’m the only person in the class who’s not Christian.”
“So what’s your question?”
“Well—aren’t Satan and the Antichrist and hell, like really important to the Christian religion?”
“Of course they are.”
“Well. . . then. . . I don’t understand.”
“You don’t understand what?”
“Well . . . um . . . that . . .”
“That what, Silverman?” he asked, slumping back a bit in his chair. Sascha saw the faint, almost menacing coldness that subtly swelled, then tightened the still-smiling Stone’s pupils.
“W-well . . . that, uh . . . such an important—”
“You wearing your red socks today?” Christian asked.
“Crowe, you know we’re not doing that until the end of the semester. Remember, patience is a virtue—one you desperately need to learn.”
When, out of the corner of his eye, Sascha saw the ruffled yellow heads of Hunter Laszlo, Trevor Howells, and Thompson Guest trailing into the room behind Christian, he abruptly put away Sir Simon and all things regarding him, replacing them with a history textbook that he immediately began “reading.”
“Aw, come on,” Christian pleaded.
“Please,” pleaded Hunter.
“I said no. The betting pool does not open until the end of the semester—as you already know.”
“Pleee-asse?” begged Thompson with raised, clasped hands.
As his friends looked back at Thompson disapprovingly, Stone repeated, “As you already know.”
“So what brings you in here? Has it started raining out there already?” Stone asked, cocking his head toward the heavy grey wet sky out the window.
“Not yet,” answered Hunter, “but it looked like it was about to, and we didn’t want to get caught up in it while we were out there playing footb—”
“Speaking of which, I’ve been watching you out there. You’re quite a football player, Crowe.”
“You really think so?” asked Christian.
“Yeah . . . I was the one who taught him how to play,” Hunter looked directly at Stone as he favored him with a half-glance. “He had never played at all before, but once I taught him, he was great, of course. He always is at sports.”
“You know you’ve got real talent as an athlete, Crowe. Don’t waste it. You know, I think you might even be a better athlete than your brother was at your age.”
“You keep it up, you’ll be able to have your pick of college athletic scholarships just like he’s getting
now. Hayden’s been approached by Harvard, hasn’t he?”
“Yeah—yes, and Dartmouth, but not for football, for lacrosse.”
An image flashed into Sascha’s mind of the Oxitern pep rallies he loved so much, the glittery-eyed hysteria that the audience, he just a little more than most, were brought to by upper-school star athletes like Hayden as they engaged in the euphoric call-and-response dialogue of an evangelical preacher with them. It hit him then that six years from now Christian would be up on that stage with that microphone in his hand, and he would not.
“But I don’t care how good at sports you are Crowe, it doesn’t give you a license to slack off on your studies”
“Oh no, I wouldn’t.”
“Well, I’m not quite so sure about that. I have a feeling that if a smart boy like you—” he said, the word you accompanied by a playful pen-tap on the head,“—were to put even half of that energy you put out there on the field into your studies, you just might be as good a student as Silverman here is.”
Feeling his left hand shake, then twitch atop his desk, Sascha swiftly slid it down to his lap, hoping it hadn’t already been seen. “But ask him—you’ve got to work hard to do well at a school like this. This is Oxitern Academy, not Black Creek Elementary.”
The boys joined Stone in a chuckle, adding a twist of nasty hilarity to theirs’.
“You’ve really got to give it your all here. Silverman, how many hours a night do you devote to your studies?”
“. . . Um, uh . . . I dunno.” His mouth’s almost painful dryness forcing him to pause, Sascha had to swallow hard before continuing. “. . . Um . . . three hours a night or so . . . ’cept on Fridays . . . I get Fridays off, but . . . uh . . .”
Needing to see the worst, Sascha’s eyes locked with Christian’s. Just out of Stone’s vision-reach, the wolf-eyed boy glared at him. No longer swathed in the baby fat that always hid his aggressively long and pointed chin and had made his oddly pointed ears less noticeable, Christian’s face had recently turned into something almost preternaturally fox-like.
“But what?” Stone asked.
“But . . . uh . . . I ha-have to devote the whole day on Sunday and, uh . . . som-sometimes . . . p-part of Saturday too, if there’s a big paper or test.”
Reverend Stone whistled in a way that made Sascha unsure whether to feel bad or good about his answer.
“Must be tough.”
“No,” Sascha answered defensively, before defiantly adding, “I can handle it.”
“Bet you can. . . . See Crowe—and the rest of you—this—” He started shaking his finger at Sascha while only half looking at him. “—is how much discipline and hard work it takes even when you’re very smart. We can’t all be Wilkie Wards,” he said, referring to the blue-blooded sixteen-year-old heir whose IQ was as much the subject of speculation as the centuries-old fortune he was to inherit. “But who’s a Wilkie Ward? Wilkie Wards are one in a million in this world. So, unfortunately, the rest of us non-geniuses have to succeed on good old-fashioned hard work.”
Feeling his face flush, Sascha prayed Stone couldn’t see it.
“Don’t worry, you’re almost a genius, Silverman.”
Feeling the charge in the air alter as the boys turned to him, Sascha’s chest started to ache. As their soft little scattered titters began, he only gave his audience a nanosecond shaky half-smile before turning back to his “reading.”
“And definitely a sinner. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much envy and pride in a single expression. That’s just the way it—what’s that?”
“What’s what?” Hunter asked nervously as faint rap music wafted over his shoulder.
Hunter’s body visibly tensed as Stone leaned over toward his knapsack and removed the Discman that was poking partly out of its front pocket. Leaning back in his chair, he hunched over it, placing his elbows on his knees.
As he began to intently study its contents, his smile slowly, ever so subtly, transformed into a gleefully rueful grimace.
“Two Dollaz . . . is he a gangstah?”
Looking up at Hunter, the grimace bled into his eyes. His voice became at once darker and happier as he asked him, “A hardcore gangbangah?”
Answering Hunter’s awkward, tense silence, Stone spoke with a somewhat neutralized voice, but a more direct gaze as he said, “Tell me something, Laszlo. If, say a few years ago, your mother was driving you somewhere in the city, and one of those squeegee guys came up, cleaned your car window and then when your mother rolled down her window to give him a dollar, shoved a gun in her face and carjacked you, you wouldn’t like it, would you?”
Hunter just looked up at him mutely, his eyes roaming all over the place.
“Uh . . . no . . . no, sir—I . . . wouldn’t.”
“So why, when a few years later, the same guy shows up on MTV in gold chains in a hot tub, would you want to buy his albu—?”
“I didn’t,” Hunter softly protested. “Howells gave it to me—as a birthday present.”
Hunter did not even get to complete his accusatory back-turn to Trevor before Trevor said, “Which I only got ’cos Guest said it was good,” and gave Thompson a more chastising look-back.
Leaning back and putting his feet up on his desk, Stone flicked the Discman shut and raised it in the air. “You know, for this I’m supposed to give you a Saturday detention and confiscate it for a week.”
“I know,” murmured a head-bowing Hunter.
With the Discman suspended in his hand, Stone froze, filling the room with a tight protracted silence.
“But I won’t.”
So gifted was Stone at these types of silences, so great was he at making five seconds feel like five minutes, that when he had finally released Hunter from it and punishment, the boy, even favored as he was, did not immediately realize he was being let off. So it took a moment for the rude animal health-pink to return to his lightly freckled cheeks and the sharpness to return to his cold shockingly bright blue eyes. And when they did and he looked back up at Stone, he could barely contain his smile as he said, “Thank you, sir.”
“Just let this be a warning.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
As Hunter waited for him to give him back the Discman, Stone opened it, smiled at him, and, as if he were receiving telepathic consent from the boy, threw the CD in the trash.
“You’re better than this.”
Hunter began to flick his eyes toward the trash can, before shamefully stopping himself.
“I know, sir.”
“You’re all better than this.”
Mouthing yes, the boys lowered their heads in what began as a nod but ended as a bow.
“Just because minstrel shows used to be popular, didn’t mean black people went to them and clapped their hands.”
The boys—who had no idea what minstrel shows were—re-bowed their heads, less in leftover shame than to hide from Stone their confusion.
To this Stone beamed amicably and said, “So . . . there’s still all those board games in the back closet over there, so help yourselves.”
While the boys headed toward the games, Sascha abruptly got up and began quickly putting his textbook into his knapsack.
“Where’re you going?” Stone asked.
“To—uh—the cafeteria. . . . I need to get something to eat.” Before Stone could say anything more, Sascha had already exited the classroom.
It was not until he was halfway down the hall that he realized that he did something he had never done before.
He had lied to Reverend Stone.
He was in truth heading toward the Wyler Ward gymnasium. Since it was Friday, he thought it would be a good time to retrieve his dirty gym clothes from his locker and get them cleaned over the weekend.
Sascha had developed an obsession about the cleanliness of his gym clothes. The previous month, his gym teacher Mr. Whitlock had screamed at him so loudly for wearing a shirt with sweat-stained underarms that the whole class had flinched. He had never even yelled at his other whipping boy, fat, friendless, acne-soiled Richie Baxter, like that, despite his being an even worse athlete than Sascha was.
Before he could even reach his locker though, a pain sliced through his stomach’s center and knocked his head down to his knees. Realizing he had a couple Rolaids left in the knapsack on his back, he tried to get them, but he couldn’t leave his standing, fetal position. Only after nearly a minute did the pain allow him to rise and rifle through his bag and find the tablets.
Once he did and their soothing, chalky residue filled his mouth, he stood in an endorphin-laced daze as the pain cooled and the blood rushed back to his head. Soon he felt something caress his shoulder. His back felt strangely light, as if a burden had been removed from it.
It wasn’t until he could hear a pair of familiar giggles that he understood why.
“Give it back!”
Just as Sascha caught up with Wilkie Ward, Wilkie threw his knapsack to Tim Burroughs. Just as he caught up with Tim Burroughs, Burroughs threw it to Todd Fellows.
“Give it back!”
“Nah,” Wilkie answered affably as he caught the knapsack from Fellows. “I think you need a break from this stuff.” He jumped up on the bench that divided the third row of lockers. “You’re gonna have a heart attack by the time you’re eleven,” he said as he pulled out his binder, turned to a page with writing on it, and turned away from Sascha.
As he heard the page rip, Sascha extended his hands out like claws and leapt up toward Wilkie, yelling, “Give it the fuck back you fucking motherfucker!”
A frightening silence befell the room as the sound of a thud and crack reverberated across it and Wilkie’s hand reflexively covered his face.
Sascha looked to the floor, where his binder lay open to the page Wilkie had been “ripping,” completely intact.
Halfway across the room against the wall, Wilkie’s glasses lay, one of their lenses severely cracked.
Looking up at Fellows and Burroughs, Sascha saw faces impossibly devoid of expression. After allowing himself a moment’s reprieve, he forced himself to look at Wilkie.
He had never seen Wilkie without his glasses. He had seen him naked once before in the locker room, and he didn’t look as naked as he looked now. Trying to read Wilkie’s oddly large and wide-spaced panther-green eyes, Sascha saw that same frightening blankness he had seen in Burroughs’s and Fellows’s eyes.
As Wilkie slowly lowered the hand that was veiling his face, Sascha heard a collective involuntary wince flood the room.
Tilting up his head, Wilkie caught his reflection in one of the bathroom mirrors across the room.
His right eye began to twitch while he looked at the scratch surfacing across his high, razor-like cheekbone.
“I’m . . . I’m sorry Wilkie . . . it was an accident.”
His twitching eye began shaking as it continued to gaze into the mirror.
“I’m sorry . . . it was—here—”
Heading over to the corner across the room where they had skidded to retrieve his glasses, Sascha could hear every step he made as if his shoes were made of lead. Save for his footsteps, the room was so quiet he could hear everyone’s breathing but Wilkie’s. Once he reached him, he extended them only slightly upward toward him. When he saw that he was not bending down to take them, Sascha had to almost fully extend his arm before Wilkie took them from his hand.
Looking down at them, a sadness overtook Wilkie’s eyes. His swollen-full red lips tightened together, then for a nanosecond quivered, before slightly grimacing.
“Not much good to me now, are they?” he asked in a voice that seemed angry, yet not at Sascha, but at the pathetic nature of the situation.
A strange unnerving feeling was coming over Sascha as the anger he had felt for Wilkie was being replaced with pity and rerouted toward himself.
Wilkie’s eyes remained morosely on his glasses.
“Do you have another pai—”
“No,” Wilkie snapped in an almost cracked voice as he looked up at him. Seeing how quickly his eyes returned to his glasses, Sascha wondered if they were tearing.
“It was an accide—”
“Oops!” Jumping down, in one fell swoop he grabbed a sheaf of papers from Sascha’s binder and ripped them up as one. “I’m sorry.”
Lunging toward Wilkie, Sascha was immediately restrained by Burroughs and Fellows. Wilkie removed Sir Simon from his knapsack and dramatically dropped him on the floor.
“It was an accident.”
As Wilkie raised his foot, Sascha turned away and closed his eyes.
“Fuck you, Wilkie!”
Sascha grit his teeth and kept his eyes closed as he heard the stomping sound. “Fuck you, Wilkie, you asshole motherfucker!”
“Better be careful no one hears you. You might get a demerit.”
“Fuck you, Fellows, you ugly zitface motherfucker!”
“Boy, if Daddy Mad Max Silverman could only hear you now. Kills himself to get out of the slums, works so hard defending really rich rapists and killers so he can give his son a better life, and you repay him by talking like a little ghettonigger.”
“I’d rather talk like a ghettonigger than be a white trash piece of shit with a fat-ass, droopy-titted mother—”
“Don’t!” Wilkie yelled to Burroughs, but it was already too late. He had already thrown Sascha over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
“Burroughs—what are you doing?”
“This little brat needs to be taught a lesson.” Burroughs’ voice was filled with the same gleeful rage that was growing on Fellows’s face, who followed him as he carried Sascha toward the bathroom.
As they entered, Sascha came eye to eye with Wilkie’s reflection. Sascha gave him a pleading look.
Crossing his arms, Wilkie gave a laugh which, though soundless, Sascha could tell by his eyes was a rueful one. Then Wilkie looked away from him.
It wasn’t his fault. They had been doing it for ten straight minutes. There was nothing he could do.
“Hope you’re wearing your diapers today.”
“Maybe the school should make him take a class in toilet training.”
Burroughs’ and Fellows’ voices wafted across the locker room into the bathroom and swirled around Sascha, merging with the warm stench of his own shit, which was slowly wrapping itself around him and suffocating him as he slid down the wall, his mouth foaming with cotton-candy-pink soap.
It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t just going in his mouth but down his throat too. And he had already been sick.
His glazed eyes registered Wilkie’s topsiders walking on the moistened beige tiles toward him.
“Do you expect me to feel sorry for you now?”
As Wilkie awaited his answer, Sascha’s eyes traced around the loops of his tied leather laces.
Sascha examined the sleek horizontal sole of the right topsider.
“You think you’re better than Burroughs because your daddy makes more money than his?”
His eyes slid along the left sole.
Traveling over the bridge of his foot, his eyes were abruptly met by Wilkie’s as he crouched down. Only now did he realize that Wilkie was wearing an uncracked pair of glasses and that he had been since their eyes had last met over Burroughs’s shoulder.
His eyes remained on Sascha’s telling him they wouldn’t leave his until Sascha answered him.
“No,” Sascha almost whispered.
“And what about Fellows? Do you think you’re better than him just because you’re better looking than him?”
A split-second image flashed into the corner of Sascha’s eye of Fellows looking at Wilkie strangely, maybe shocked, maybe sad.
Laughing bitterly, Wilkie looked down at the pants Sascha had yet to be able to look down at. While the shit started to soak through to their outside, Wilkie looked back up at him with growing revulsion.
“Look at you . . . how can you sit there like that? . . . In your own shit? . . . Don’t you have any respect for yourself?” His smile disappeared as if it couldn’t bear to be on his face anymore. “Jesus, clean yourself up.”
And then he got up and walked away.
He couldn’t go around the rest of the day like this. He couldn’t.
He might be able to change into his gym sweatpants and make up some excuse about what had happened to his pants. But they would grill him. The teachers would all grill him until it would end up bursting out of him.
Maybe he could clean his pants. With hot enough water it might work. There was only a little on the outside, and he could just throw his underwear down the incinerator.
But how would he dry them?
His heart leapt as he spotted the bathroom’s pair of electric blowers out of the corner of his eye.
A small wave of Pyrrhic relief washed over Sascha as he pulled his dried pants out from under the electric blower. Examining them, his nostrils flared and his teeth grit so hard he could hear his jaw snap. His eyes began to burn, but as soon as they felt wet, he blinked hard, refusing to blink them again once he reopened them. He had only been able to do a near-perfect job. The back of his dark grey pants was still stained with just the tiniest microscopic brown spot.
Realizing in the next moment however, that his unharmed blazer would be long enough to cover it, he became flooded with an angry, humiliating sense of relief.
After putting on his pants, he walked over to the sink and turned on the faucet. Only when he had turned it up to the hottest temperature would he put his hands under it. Even as the water began smoking and his hands turned a near-red hot pink, he would not stop washing his hands until five minutes had passed. When he finished, his eyes rose up toward the paper towel dispenser by the sink, stopping when they caught his reflection in the mirror before him. His eyes didn’t move from the mirror.
Tugging at the drawer handle, Sascha let out a groan.
Reverend Stone’s desk was locked.
Images of past-seen movie scenes flickering in his head, he dropped to his knees and drew his knapsack toward him.
Keeping one eye on the door of Stone’s classroom and a half an eye out the window, he ransacked his bag for a paper clip.
Finally finding one, he straightened it out. But his hands were shaking so badly that he dropped it immediately after doing so.
Crawling under Stone’s desk, he picked up the clip, hitting his head so hard as he withdrew from it he had to put his fist into his mouth for a moment to stop himself from crying out.
Returning to his space in front of the desk’s drawer, he put the tip of the clip in the lock.
After a few seconds, euphoria shot up through Sascha’s skull as he felt and heard a click.
Shoving the clip in his pocket, he opened Stone’s drawer and began carefully scanning it for what he was looking for. Finding it, anxious not to disturb anything, he removed it delicately from the desk.
“What are you doing?” Hunter asked.