The Lad Who Poked the Devil in the Eye
Chapter 4: Growing Pains

Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg

Otis slipped in the door, holding it steady as he eased it closed. Despite his best effort, he'd missed dinner. It'd be hard lying to his parents twice about where he'd been. Seeing and hearing no one from the entranceway, he walked into the living room and glanced around.

"There's no one here," he whispered, afraid of attracting attention. More curious than cautious, he peered into the dining room. No one. Still not satisfied, he ventured into the kitchen.

"If you're looking for Mom and Dad, they're out. We saved you dinner, though."

Otis spun around, caught unaware. His sister Ger was leaning against the upstairs staircase, smirking at him.

Otis's brow furrowed in confusion. "Didn't they ... expect me?"

She giggled. "No, why would they? I called myself on the house phone from my cell. Before they could reach it, I answered and took a message. After I hung up, I told them you'd called to ask permission to stay over at Jayden's."

"And they bought it?"

Ger laughed again. "Of course they did. It's the truth, isn't it?"

Otis whistled, crossing him arms. "Man, you're good at this. I'm not sure I can ever believe anything you say."

"I told you that you had no idea how to lie. Take it from a master; you've got a lot to learn."

He cocked his head, squinting and leaning against the kitchen counter. "The question is, why? What's in it for you?"

Ger passed him, heading for the fridge where she removed his dinner. "Hey, I'm your sister. I may give you grief, but that's my job. It doesn't mean we don't stick up for each other." She slipped the meal into the microwave and pressed reheat, before turning. "We're family. We support each other. You might deny it, but you'd do the same for me."

Otis leaned against the counter. "I spend most of my time out of the house just so you won't tease me."

"About talking to yourself? Yeah, I do. But that's because I know how much flak you'll get when someone discovers you doing it. By the way, I know about your trips to the desert."

He stiffened, his eyes contracting. "What do you mean?"

Ger waved her hand. "Come on. You may fool Mom and Dad, but we're talking about me. I know you well enough to know when you're up to something, so I've been paying attention."

Otis straightened, cocking his head. "And what, pray tell, was I supposedly doing in the desert?"

Her eyes dilated slightly, but she was saved from answering when the microwave dinged. Turning, she pulled his plate out and handed it to him.

"You didn't answer," Otis said, taking the plate from her.

She smiled, turning to the refrigerator, pulling out the pitcher and pouring him some iced tea.

"You can pretend there's nothing happening as long as you want, but we both know what's going on."

Otis sighed. Grabbing some silverware he sat down at the counter. Even if his sister didn't know what was going on, she was too close for comfort. In an attempt to head her off, he decided to bribe her with an invitation into his psyche. "There's nothing going on. Jayden's been talking about me. I guess I let a couple comments slip, so I've been avoiding him. I head into the desert where I can be alone." He put his fork down. "It's tough not being able to talk to anyone. As Mom says, I'm doing better at keeping it hidden but ... I need the opportunity to ... express myself."

"Oh please!" Ger poured an iced tea and sat across from him. "Talking to yourself is like cocaine. As long as you keep at it, you'll never get the monkey off your back. If you want to talk, speak with someone who won't tell anyone. Someone who ... looks out for you."

Otis cocked his head, studying her before picking up his fork, digging into his meal. "It's not quite so easy. There are a few things you can't discuss with your little sister."

"What? You mean sex? You're riding your bicycle into the desert where no one can follow. You're not talking about sex. You can beat off without speaking in your bedroom. But if you keep ranting like a lunatic, no one will ever give you a shot. No, we both know what you're talking about."

Otis smiled. He wasn't ready to call her bluff, but he felt secure she was being cagey. She was bluffing. As she'd said the day before, she knew something was up and was trying to get him to admit it. He wasn't that stupid. Although, he reminded himself, he was dumb enough to land in this position.

"Think of it more as a mental health issue. I'm venting." He glanced down as he cut his food up into bite sized pieces, images of George eating chicken legs flashing in his mind. "Since I've got no one I can talk to, I head out and talk things out with myself. The problems aren't the kind you'd share with anyone, especially an annoying little sister who'd only poke fun at you. It allows me to work through them and relieve the pressure. It's not a permanent fix. I'm easing off some steam, just enough so, when I start high school this fall, I won't appear as nuts as I am now. With luck, I'll be able to behave normally long enough to make a few new friends. After that, with people to speak with on a daily basis, I won't need to talk to myself all the time."

Ger leaned forward, her eyes widening in a puppy dog's sympathy look. "What about Jayden? The two of you are ... close."

Otis snorted. "Jayden's a jerk. The only reason we hang around is because there's no one else nearby. If I could drive, or had any way of finding new friends, I'd drop him in a second. Weren't you listening? I'm afraid to tell him anything. If I say the wrong thing, it'll be all over school and I'd never live it down. That's why this coming year is so important. If I come off as approachable, I can switch Jayden for some more understanding friends. If not, I'm stuck with him as my only friend and I'll only have myself to discuss things with."

Ger frowned, leaning back. "You could discuss things with me. I sometimes make fun of you, but I'd never talk about you to anyone else."

Otis waved his fork around, accenting his speech. "No, what I've venting about is too personal. I'm getting into what really bothers me, my fears and anxieties. It would hurt too much revealing it, especially if you couldn't resist and reacted negatively. For the next few weeks, at least, this is the best option. It gets the habit out of my system. It'll leave me relaxed and comfortable. If I talk myself out now, I'll be sick of it by the time school rolls around."

Ger narrowed her eyes. "Classes don't start for another month and a half. If you have engaged conversations with yourself the entire time, you'll reinforce a bad habit, making it impossible to quit."

"I don't think I'll need that long," he replied, figuring George was unlikely to remain for so long. Once Otis taught him all he knew, he'd either leave the Earth entirely or relocate somewhere he could observe humanity more directly. "What I'm doing now is like intensive therapy. I'm delving into my deeper issues, resolving personal conflicts. Once I come to a resolution, I think I'll be safe around other people."

Ger wasn't happy with that scenario, but her brother was including her into his world for once, treating her as an adult. For her, that was a major concession. She wasn't willing to pee in her drinking water, poisoning their new relationship over a minor point. "That makes sense. Just make sure you don't get carried away. In fact, we should have more of these discussions, so I can monitor your progress and see if you're slipping unintentionally."

He raised his glass. "Sounds like a deal. Let's toast our compromise. Less talking to myself around the house, less badgering by you, and more open communication."

Ger's smile broadcast her enthusiasm as she too raised her glass, but as they clinked their glasses, Otis winced.

"Are you OK?"

"Yeah, just got a kink," he replied, rubbing his shoulder. "It's nothing. I probably need to eat more bananas. Dad keeps saying he gets pains when he stretches due to a lack of potassium. Maybe my poor eating habits are catching up with me."

She glanced back at the fruit basket. "I think we're out. I'll ask Mom for some more. Is there anything else I should know so I can run interference for you?"

He considered it a moment. "Yeah, I could use some ... raw hamburger, but I'd like to avoid asking Mom for it."

Ger cocked her head, stricken by the unusual request. "What are you planning on doing with raw hamburger in the middle of the desert?"

Otis blushed, realizing he had no rational explanation for his request. "Since I spend so much time alone, I wanted to learn to cook. I found an old stove and I want to see if I can get it to work. If I experiment here, you and Mom will tease me mercilessly. I think it's easier practicing somewhere I feel safe." He held his hands open on either side of his body. "If my plan doesn't pan out and I'm stuck as a loner the rest of my life, I'd better learn to cope on my own."

Ger's puppy dog eyes returned. "You don't need to worry about that. You can always order in or I could teach you."

"Maybe," Otis offered, unwilling to concede the point.

Getting used to the routine, Otis slipped downstairs as soon as he heard his father's van pull away. Grabbing his backpack, he hurried to the side door.

"Morning. You're up early."

He froze mid-step, hardly daring to breathe. He turned to see Ger, sitting at the breakfast table with a bowl of Cheerios. She smiled, pleased at his response, and picked up a plastic container, handing it to him. "I thought you'd appreciate this."

"Do Mom and Dad know you're up?" Otis whispered as he took the container without glancing at it.

"Dad knows. He was surprised I was up so early." She giggled. "Mom was up earlier, but she likes to sleep in now that her two kids aren't in school for the summer."

Otis' eyes flitted up the stairs as he weighed the package in his hands. "You didn't let on anything, did you?"

Ger snorted softly, arching an eyebrow. "Otis, I've been playing Mom and Dad much longer than you, so I know what to say and what not to. Aren't you going to see at what I gave you?"

Surprised, Otis shook his head and glanced into the plastic bowl to see the raw hamburger he requested. "I thought we couldn't arrange it?"

"We had some in the freezer. I defrosted it last night and cooked a small amount in the skillet, which I then cleaned. When mom asks about the pan and the smell, I'll say we were hungry so I fixed you some hamburgers and we need more. Now, no one will ask when dinner disappears."

Otis broke into a smile, kissing his sister on the forehead. "You're a lifesaver." As he did, his leg gave out under him, causing him to lurch forward before catching himself.

"Is your leg OK?" Ger asked, glancing at it.

He rubbed his shinbone. "Yeah, but my shin and elbows are arching like I ran a marathon last night. I may need to take it easy on the bicycle today, only ... the muscles don't hurt."

"I mentioned your leg to Mom last night. She laughed and said you were probably hitting your final growth spurt. When I asked, she explained that when we were both young, every time we grew, we'd complain about our legs hurting. She said it's because the bones are expanding. I didn't think much of it, but she described exactly what you're experiencing, right down to your shin aching. With luck, you may not be the shortest boy in school this year."

"A growth spurt, huh? That's unexpected. I haven't grown much for a while. At least not since my voice changed. I was worried about it, thinking I was destined to be a dwarf."

Ger laughed but glanced up the stairs as her brother had moments before. "You'd better go while the goings good. Mom's likely be wander downstairs with all this activity. Once she discovers we're waking up early, she'll stay downstairs in the mornings."

"OK, I'm on my way." He kissed his sister's forehead again, indicating his newest gift. "And thanks, I appreciate this." He rushed out, peddling off in a new direction. Since Ger was aware he was up to something, he decided to mask his movements better. He took a more circuitous path to his remote cliff hideout, while she watched him disappear down the street.

"Well, it appears the Goofy Juice George injected into our blood does more than handle communications. But if it allows me to enter high school no longer the runt of the litter, I'm not about to complain. Now that Ger explained it, it makes sense. The aches are all in the bones—the shins and forearms—rather than the muscles exercise might stress. For an obnoxious kid sister, she's proving helpful. She's still trying to prove her worth, so if I belittle her now, she's likely to retaliate. Say by telling someone what I'm up to. She knows enough to get me into trouble, even if she doesn't know what I'm up to. Yet, if handled delicately, she can provide cover so we aren't exposed. Still, I need to watch myself, otherwise, I'm heading for a fall."

George seemed different when Otis showed up in his lair. His skin seemed ... grayer. He moved slower and didn't seem as responsive. When there was stimulus, say movement in the air of the cavern, his antenna still responded, but they did so several moments after the breeze passed. In short, he didn't look good. Instead of begging off or taking it easy, he seemed driven. While Otis was eager to discuss common items shared between their two worlds, George focused exclusively on language syntax. How sentences are formed, how they're strung together. It was like he was preparing for a test and didn't have time to waste on learning anything which wouldn't be on the final. Anytime Otis suggested something different, or hesitated in the slightest, he'd get snippy, attacking him in odd, passive-aggressive ways. Otis began suspecting George was baiting him, trying to measure human emotional responses.

But over the course of the day, George continued to weaken. His mind didn't seem as clear and it took him longer to grasp concepts. By the time late afternoon arrived, he finally sighed—or at least, the alien equivalent of a sigh—and curled up like an armadillo. He reconsidered, fully extended to his full seven foot length. He didn't relax as much as let go, allowing his limbs to collapse beside him.

Concerned, Otis went to see whether he needed anything, he grasping his hand.

"The time has come. We are done. This must end." He then pushed some buttons on a device beside him.

"What are you talking about? What must end?" Otis asked.

"My mission is complete. There is ... no more use."

Otis pulled against George's grip, but it remained firm. Despite his condition, he was still incredibly strong. "Can I help? Do you need water? Food? Can I contact someone for you? Should I go for help?"

The creature examined him as if looking beyond him, searching for something Otis didn't possess. George gave his version of a smile, grabbed something from nearby, reached up, and jabbed his ear again. "You need this," he said, releasing Otis's hand. He waved his arm in a sweeping gesture. "No go. Run hard, run fast. You have little time."

That was all he said, but Otis knew exactly what he was saying. His eyes grew large. He stood, looking helplessly at his alien friend.


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