What Are You?
Alex felt uneasy as he lay in his bed and listened to the wind outside. It had been an okay day at school – he’d only been called “Roller Boy” twice, which was almost a world record. After school, he’d kicked it at Roy’s house and they cranked some Hawthorne Heights tunes and chilled. Even Jane hadn’t bitched at him. So why can’t I sleep? He didn’t know the answer. His eyes returned to the dancing shadows that flitted across his floor from the window. His drapes were closed, but the wind whistled through the trees, and the shadows mesmerized him. The patterns of light and dark pulled on his eyelids, dragging him slowly under. A dream loomed at the edges of his consciousness. One of those dreams. Sleep overcame him, and the dream began….
Ms. Ashley trudged down a flight of stairs from her second floor apartment to street level, carrying several overflowing bags of trash. The traffic sounds were omnipresent, but otherwise the night was calm and clear.
A slight breeze ruffled her long brown hair as she slunk quickly to the rear of the complex. Rounding the building, she passed alongside a sloping hill of ivy-covered ground toward the row of trashcans in the far corner.
Looking chilled and unsettled, Ms. Ashley lifted one lid and struggled to get all her bags in without spilling anything.
A rustling noise startled her and she whipped her head around to the left.
The ivy-covered hill ascended upward into darkness, but there was no movement. Only a creepy silence.
She quickly tossed her bags into the can and dropped the lid back in place with a hollow clang.
Suddenly, a large cat dropped onto the top of the can from somewhere above. She uttered a startled cry and leaped back a few steps.
The cat meowed and she chuckled, extending one slightly trembling hand. The animal snuggled against it, wanting to be stroked. She ran her fingers through the fur around the cat’s neck and under its chin.
More rustling leaves drew her attention to the ivy.
The darkness in this corner was deep and penetrating, making the vines and leaves snaking their way up the slope barely visible. Another cat materialized from beneath the thick cover of ivy. Then another. And another.
In seconds, the hillside crackled and seethed with cats of all shapes and sizes. Their glowing eyes shone like eerie beacons in the night. The cat beneath Ms. Ashley’s fingers hissed and swiped its claws at her, raking the top of her hand and drawing copious amounts of blood.
Startled, she cried out and yanked her hand back, gazing in shock at the dark liquid gushing forth and spilling onto the concrete at her feet.
Terror etched her face.
She cautiously backed away.
The cats crouched on the hillside, poised and threatening.
The huge one she’d been petting wailed into the night, and then they were on her, leaping and clawing at her face and hair. Hundreds of cats streamed down the hillside and flung themselves at her while the big one sat and watched like a general commanding his troops.
Ms. Ashley screamed, but loud traffic sounds drowned out her cries. Flailing wildly, she turned and stumbled along the side of the building toward the street, desperately crying out for help.
Claws dug into her back and raked across her neck.
Teeth sunk into her arm.
She shrieked in agony as they yanked out chunks of her hair and raked at her legs, shredding her sweat pants and digging viciously into her soft flesh.
Blood spilled from everywhere on her body.
The street loomed just ahead. She tossed one cat off in a frantic attempt to save herself, only to have three more replace it. She clearly didn’t have much time before she’d topple beneath a tidal wave of claws and fur.
A large truck roared along Lincoln Boulevard as Ms. Ashley staggered toward the curb. The headlights were bright and blinding. The biggest cat now flew from the retaining wall at her face and gouged a chunk of flesh out of her cheek, exposing the bone. She wailed in agony.
Her knees buckled, but Ms. Ashley managed to stay on her feet while stumbling headlong into the street at a frantic pace.
Suddenly aware that the truck was almost on her, she clutched at the nearest light post in desperation. One bloodied hand caught the post and slowed her momentum as the cats ceased their brutal attack. She gesticulated frantically with her free hand, hoping to attract the attention of the driver. With her urgent gaze fixed on the truck, she didn’t see the figure in black leap from behind the retaining wall right at her.
Strong hands pressed hard into her back and propelled her forward.
The truck mowed her down in a splatter of blood and gore, flinging her broken body to the pavement and then crushing it beneath massive tires.
As the truck screeched to an ear-piercing halt near the corner, the figure in black melted into the darkness. Several cats sniffed the dead woman’s remains before they, too, disappeared into the shadows. The first cat was the last to depart, watching as the horrified driver jumped from the truck cab and pelted toward Ms. Ashley’s broken body.
The cat seemed to grin before vanishing into the night….
Alex screamed and bolted upright in bed, sweating profusely, his young face etched with horror, hair plastered to his sweat-sheened forehead. Heart thumping with urgent terror, he scanned his darkened room. The door leading outside was closed, but the ominous shadows still crept through the window. His desk was messy as usual, and the door to his bathroom stood ajar, but he’d left it that way. Everything looked like it had before he fell asleep.
Dropping onto his pillow, Alex fought to control his breathing and calm his pounding heart. A dream. That’s all it had been. He’d known one was coming, and he’d been right. God, he hated those dreams! Poor Ms. Ashley. He lay there, sweat making his t-shirt cling uncomfortably to his chest as his heart rate slowly drew down. Could this dream be like the one about his parents? He hadn’t had one like that in years. It seemed so real!
He lay in bed worrying about the morning, and what he’d find when he got to school, even though there was nothing he could do to change anything.
Gradually, he calmed down; the tree branches outside tapping against the house lulled him to sleep. The last image to assail him before he went under was that ugly-ass cat grinning at him before running off into the dark.
The following morning, Alex regarded himself in the bathroom mirror as he brushed his teeth. He’d showered and blow-dried his shoulder-length, choppy white-blond hair and it looked clean. People liked his blue eyes, when he didn’t hide them behind his flowing bangs. Roy always said they were the color of ocean water you might see on TV, or maybe the earth from space.
Alex finished pushing the brush up and down his teeth, and spat out the mint-flavored water, staring a moment at his soft, hairless cheeks and milky white skin. Sure, he seemed so innocent, a “sweet-faced boy,” as his social workers had always described him to prospective foster parents. That’s what made the whole thing worse. He did look like a nice kid. But no matter how hard he tried, he always screwed everything up. He always started spinning people. He couldn’t help it. And once they figured out he was doing something weird, they got scared and wanted nothing more to do with him.
He’d already been through ten different foster homes, and the only reason Jane kept him at this one was because she’d figured out what he could do.
“What are you?” he asked his reflection.
As always, it didn’t answer.
Jane Walters stood at the door with her ear pressed against it, while two boys sat at the kitchen table watching her cautiously.
Carlos, a burly high school junior, wolfed down his cereal, while freshman Juan glared with barely contained fury. Carlos grinned at the smaller boy. Juan flinched in fear and Carlos sniggered quietly. Juan’s cereal sat untouched in front of him as he reached with trembling fingers to touch his left cheek, wincing at the pain. The left cheek and eye were black and blue and swelling rapidly.
A motorized sound came from behind the door, like a rising elevator. Jane stepped away and glared balefully at Carlos, jerking her thumb at the door.
Carlos’s previous bravado with Juan dropped instantly. He swallowed his final mouthful and leapt from his chair. Snatching up a backpack from the floor, he bolted out the side door, never even glancing at Jane. She regarded the sullen Juan smugly, folding her arms across her chest.
“You know what to do.” Her tone left no room for argument.
“What if he don’ wanna this time? He said he wouldn’t no more.”
“You know what’ll happen to you if he won’t,” she snapped.
Juan nodded fearfully.
Jane momentarily observed her reflection in the large, ornately framed mirror, obviously looking pleased with what she saw.
She turned to him, practically pinning the petrified boy to his chair. “I’ll be watching.”
The motorized whirring slowly ground to a halt as Jane darted quickly through the door into the hallway.
The door beside the rectangular dining table popped open and Alex rolled out in his wheelchair, wearing a Hawthorne Heights band t-shirt, black hoodie, skinny black jeans, his black and white high-top Converse shoes, and a backpack resting comfortably on his lap. He had Roy to thank for most of these clothes since Jane never spent a dime on him unless she had to.
He popped a small wheelie and shoved the door closed with a swipe of his hand, and then turned to Juan, whose head was bent toward his cereal bowl. Alex noted the behavior and frowned. It bothered him that he frightened Juan, but he didn’t blame the kid. After all, he frightened almost everyone. He decided to step from his usual emo greeting and affect a cheerfulness he never felt.
“Mornin’, Juan,” he offered in his most upbeat tone of voice. Was that upbeat? He so seldom felt that way he really didn’t know what it sounded like.
Juan didn’t look up. Alex noted the other bowl and half-filled glass of orange juice on the table, and frowned.
“Carlos must ’a heard me comin’ and bailed, huh?”
Juan said nothing.
Attempting to seem nonthreatening to the younger boy, Alex added, “Left his dishes this time. Jane’ll be pissed.”
Juan looked up quickly, revealing his bruised face. “You mean ‘Mom’, right, Alex?”
Alex ignored the correction, gazing in shock at the other boy’s battered face. Furious, he wheeled over to Juan. “Did she make Carlos––?”
Juan cut him off abruptly. “I fell, uh, hit the bed table. That’s all.”
He indicated the mirror on the wall with a slight head nod. Alex caught the movement and looked at Juan, blinking twice in response, his anger roiling.
Juan pleaded softly, “Alex, could you, you know…?”
His voice trailed off and he looked down at his cereal again.
Alex scowled unhappily.
“I don’ wanna go to school ’n look like this,” Juan whispered, focusing his attention on the soggy corn flakes floating in his bowl like dead maggots.
Alex gazed long and hard at Juan. He was fourteen, but looked eleven or twelve, tiny and scrawny with brown skin, short hair, and big, fearful eyes. He wore baggy pants and baggy shirts, but they only highlighted how tiny he was. Had Alex ever seen the boy laugh or grin like a kid should? He didn’t think so. But then, he didn’t do those things either. How could they, living with a witch like Jane? He leaned in so Juan’s head hid him from view of the mirror.
“You mean she don’t want you to.”
Juan’s eyes looked round and filled with panic. “Please, Alex?”
“Aren’t you afraid, like them other times?”
He reached out to touch Juan’s bruised cheek, but Juan recoiled even before Alex’s fingers reached him.
Alex felt that punch to the gut sensation each time someone flinched from him, which was almost everyone, except for Roy and the kids in his class. “You are afraid. Guess I don’ blame you.”
Juan flushed red with embarrassment, turning his bruises a brighter shade of purple. “Alex, please?”
Alex sighed with resignation. His frown melted into a look of deep compassion as he brushed his bangs away from his eyes so Juan wouldn’t be scared. At least, he didn’t think he looked scary. The blue always seemed to calm people.
“Okay,” Alex said with another sigh, steeling himself for the pain to come. “Tell me.”
Jane stood in a small closet directly behind the two-way mirror in the kitchen, smirking at the two men beside her. All the kids knew it was there, but they never knew when she might actually be on the other side. Another technique she’d developed to keep them in line. The men wore business suits, and one held a camcorder pointing through the glass at the two boys.
“Now watch real close,” Jane admonished, though both men were already riveted to the drama playing out in the kitchen.
The younger of the two, Phil, watched intently, as though not entirely surprised by what he was witnessing. As silver-haired Bob lifted the camcorder, his mouth dropped open in stunned disbelief.
Jane grinned as she turned from the boys to eye the two men. Shocked by what he saw, Bob lowered the camera and watched with his own eyes.
“You idiot, keep filming!” Jane snapped, her voice like a firecracker.
Bob recovered from the initial surprise and whipped the camera up, continuing to record.
Phil’s expression remained unreadable to Jane, but she didn’t really care. These men were flunkies. The moneyman was all that mattered.
“Wish we had audio,” Phil muttered.
“You’ll get it from the other camera,” Jane said, directing his attention to the cupboard behind the boys. The door was ajar. From this angle, even through the two-way glass, she saw the blinking red light as it recorded.
Phil nodded absently while Jane watched, grinning at the stunned expressions of the two men beside her.
Through the mirror, she observed Alex spin his black magic, saw the pained expression on his face, and grinned when Juan, now uninjured, stared in wide-eyed fear at the freak beside him.
Yes, you’re a freak, Alex, she thought, but you’re a freak who’s going to make me rich.
Alex’s eyes remained closed, his features intent as his bruised face returned to normal. Several moments passed before his eyes fluttered open. “Man, Carlos, I mean that table, really hit you hard.”
Juan had pulled away from Alex as far as his chair would allow. His eyes were wide and anxious, and his voice quavered. “Yeah. Well, I… uh, thanks.”
He looked down at the table again, obviously afraid to meet Alex’s gaze. Alex watched him sadly, and then glanced at the mirror. He scowled at his own reflection.
She was there, probably wearing that evil smile she had. Fighting down the temptation to flip his middle finger at her, Alex turned to Juan.
“C’mon,” he said with a heavy sigh. “We gonna be late for school.”
He smiled as best he could manage, and Juan nodded solemnly. He rose from his chair and snatched his ratty backpack from the floor at his feet. Alex rolled to the door and pulled it open. Juan skirted past him, making Alex feel like he had a horrible disease or something. He’d just helped the boy, for the seventh time already, and Juan was still afraid of him. But Juan’s reaction was typical. Unless he spun them afterwards, everyone who saw what he could do pretty much freaked. He rolled outside and yanked the door shut behind him.
Inside the closet, Jane turned to Bob, who continued to run the camcorder even though the kitchen was empty.
“You can stop taping now,” she said smugly, folding her arms across her chest.
Bob suddenly realized there was nothing left to film and shut off the camera, staring at Jane with amazement. His face was ashen, as though he’d seen a ghost. Phil’s eyes glittered with excitement, which Jane interpreted as astonishment at what he’d just seen.
“A million, remember,” she told the two men authoritatively. “You tell him. Not a penny less.”
Bob wiped his sweaty palms against his gray dress pants and gulped, obviously shaken. “Oh, we’ll definitely tell him, Ms. Walters. You can count on that.”
Alex followed Juan along the side of the house. On their left rose a high, wood-slat fence separating Jane’s property from her neighbor. He allowed his chair to roll itself down the sloping driveway past the five-foot hedge that took over for the fence and ended at the sidewalk.
Just as the boys reached the sidewalk, a little old lady stepped from behind the hedge and Alex nearly cried out with fright. The dream images of the night before had not fully retreated, and he realized he was more unnerved than he’d thought. Juan jumped like a frightened cat, but Alex knew why he was jittery. The white-haired, stooped old lady offered a toothy grin and held out a small brown lunch bag to each boy.
Alex found himself grinning in return, and his racing heart settled into its normal rhythm. “Morning, Mrs. Rhodes.”
She kept herself on her side of the hedge as she cheerfully greeted them.
“Mornin’ Alex, Juan. I made you tuna today, plus my chocolate chip cookies.”
Even though this was a daily ritual, Alex couldn’t help but feel extreme gratitude every time. “Thanks, Mrs. Rhodes. I din’ even get breakfast this morning.” As though on cue, his stomach rumbled.
She glared a moment at Jane’s house. “Doesn’t surprise me.”
“Gracias, señora,” Juan offered shyly.
Mrs. Rhodes smiled and turned away, observing Jane’s house as she hobbled to her front porch. Alex noted that she was using a cane today, not something she normally did. Must be that arth-something or other that always bothered her, he realized. He’d spin her again as soon as he got a chance. She was always nice to him, and since she never figured out what he was doing, making her feel better was pretty easy.
While Bob and Jane discussed particulars of the pending deal, Phil wandered to the living room window and pulled aside the drapes. He observed the old lady hand lunch bags to the boys, and watched as Alex wheeled away down the street, the other kid following. Phil slipped out his phone and typed the following message: ‘You were right.’
Alex didn’t attempt to make conversation with Juan as they made their way toward school. Roy would be along any minute, but Juan would beg off and choose to walk. That’s what happened every time Alex spun him.
Roy’s F-150 truck rolled into view, and Alex couldn’t help but feel good at the sight. Roy’s dad had helped him buy the used pickup, and Roy worked all summer buying parts from junkyards and after-market places to soup up the engine and transmission. As far as Alex was concerned, Roy was a genius when it came to anything mechanical. He always joked that if Roy was turned loose in a junkyard, he could build a rocket to Mars.
Roy sat in the cab and dramatically honked the horn, as though the two boys couldn’t see him right in front of them. It was their usual morning game and Alex chuckled like he always did. Roy pulled the pickup to the curb and hopped out. Alex barely had time to note Roy’s skinny jeans, 30 Seconds to Mars shirt, and shock of brown hair spilling across his face like an old mop before his friend bounded over and grabbed the back of the wheelchair.
Alex’s chair was his one prized possession. A few years ago, when he’d had a cool social worker, he’d managed to get a super-sturdy chair built like the one a famous guy named Aaron used for his incredible stunts. Alex had only been seven when he’d seen on the news how fourteen-year-old Aaron mastered the world’s first backflip in a wheelchair. It had amazed and empowered Alex to see someone with spina bifida like him accomplishing something so spectacular.
His caseworker at the time, a lady named Sandy Quigley, had convinced the county to pay for his special chair on the grounds that it would be nearly indestructible and would not need to be replaced or repaired often. Alex had been so ecstatic he didn’t even feel guilty for spinning Sandy into thinking he really needed something like that.
Roy pushed Alex’s chair around the front of the truck to the passenger side and yanked open the door. Alex tossed his backpack onto the floor as Roy extended his arms and grinned. The double piercings at each side of his lower lip glinted in the morning sun. Alex smiled and slid forward, allowing Roy to sweep him up and toss him onto the passenger seat, grunting as he did.
“Getting too buff, Alex,” Roy said. “You should be tossing me into the car.”
“Yer just mad cuz I’m younger and can beat yer ass at arm wrestling,” Alex retorted as Roy grinned and slammed the door.
Roy grabbed the chair, popped out the cushion, folded it into itself and slipped both chair and cushion up and into the bed of his pickup. He noticed Juan walking away in the direction of Mark Twain and called out. “Hey, Juan, doncha wanna ride?”
Juan turned and shook his head. “Not today, Roy. Thanks.” He hurried away, as though trying to put as much distance between himself and Alex as possible.
Sitting in the shotgun seat, Alex watched through the rearview as his housemate scurried away like a frightened rabbit.
Roy climbed into the cab and slammed his door, flipping his ragged bangs off his face and jerking a thumb behind him. “’Sup with him today?”
Alex shrugged. “Jane had Carlos beat him up so I hadda spin ’im. You know how he trips.”
Roy cast a disgusted look Alex’s way. “I hate that bitch. You need to spin her but good.”
Alex tried for a smile, but suddenly those horrific dream images returned in force. “Don’t tempt me.”
When Roy didn’t start the engine right away, Alex looked at him through his surfer-white bangs. “We’re gonna be late.”
Roy shrugged. He wore the black Levi’s jacket Alex loved, the one with the rips in it that looked so cool. If Roy wasn’t Special Ed like him, he’d be one of the sickest kids on campus.
Roy reached down to the floor beneath his seat and pulled out a small package wrapped in black paper. “Happy birthday, fool.” He tossed Alex the box.
Oh, shit! Alex thought as he fumbled to catch the box that fell into his lap. He’d completely forgotten! What with his latest nightmare and having to spin Juan, his fifteenth birthday never even crossed his mind.
Blushing and making his pale skin look like a tomato, Alex grinned gratefully. “Thanks, man. I forgot.”
Roy shoved his bangs aside again. “I didn’t. Open it.”
Almost giddy at receiving a real present, Alex tore off the paper with gusto, and gaped at what he found underneath. A Nexus phone, still in the box. Brand new!
“Holy shit!” he mumbled, feeling like the wind had been knocked from his lungs. Other than his wheelchair, he’d never been given anything this nice since he was four. He looked at the grinning Roy with open-mouthed astonishment. “Oh, man, Roy, I dunno what to say.”
Roy laughed, a rarity for him. “How ‘bout, thanks, Roy, for being my awesomest friend.”
“Thanks, Roy, for being my most awesomest friend. But, this is too much, man. And I got no money for a plan. You know how Jane–”
“Screw her!” Roy spat. “You know I make money fixing engines and stuff and my dad let me put you on our plan. He hates that bitch as much as I do.”
Alex felt funny, like he was taking advantage of Roy. “I ain’t never had a phone before….”
“It’s time you did,” Roy said, grabbing the box and ripping off the plastic covering. As he opened the box and slid out the smartphone, he added, “Now you can call me any time. I know we can’t text a lot, but I’ll put on the Tango app for you.”
Alex’s face scrunched with confusion as Roy popped in the battery and handed him the phone. “What’s that?”
“It’ll let us see each other when we talk,” Roy explained. “It’s pretty sick.”
Alex grinned. Jane never let the boys use her house phone, and she didn’t allow them to have cell phones, either. The others were on probation and she’d convinced their probation officers that “Cell phones are an invitation to trouble.”
“I gotta hide this from Jane,” Alex said, his face clouding over. “She’ll take it away.”
“Over my dead body.”
Alex loved how protective Roy was of him. All the guys in class, really.
“Thanks, Roy,” he said shyly, gazing in awe at the bright, crystal clear home screen. His own phone! Wow!
“We better get to school,” Roy said, turning the ignition. “You know how pissed Ms. Ashley gets when we’re late.”
The mention of Ms. Ashley pushed aside all the joy he felt at receiving Roy’s gift, and flooded his heart and soul with bloodied images of her demise in his dream. He shivered, seeing once more the face of that huge, grinning cat.
“Yeah, let’s get going.” Suddenly, he wanted desperately to get to school. But he feared it, too, because deep down he knew his teacher wouldn’t be there today, or any of the days to come.
Roy made a U-turn and pulled out into the quiet residential street toward Mark Twain High.