Copyright© 2021 by Mark Elias
By the end of August I was packing up the last of my things and putting them into the large U-Haul truck my dad had rented. It would take us two days to move everything. The first day we focused on getting our bedrooms moved to the new house so we’d have a place to sleep. The following day we’d move the rest of the house before returning the truck. The rest of the week was spent getting things in order. The house itself was in good shape and didn’t need much in the way of repairs. At least that’s what my dad said. All I knew is that it was much larger than our small little house we had just left. Our last house had just two bedrooms and mine was small. Not to mention my bathroom wasn’t private. Any guests in the house had access to it. The new house was 4 bedrooms in total, though my mom had claimed one as an office. It also had 3 bathrooms, one of which was private just for me.
School started that year with little fanfare. Dr. Clark made it known that he thought I was making a mistake by not taking the advanced placement tests. Ms. Akers at least seemed to understand. She had called me into her office the first day of school and talked to me about one of the statements I made. It concerned her that I said I had no friends.
“Alex, you can’t go through your entire life and not have a single friend. You need people to rely on. You need people you can laugh with.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You say that now but trust me. I’ve had a lot more experience in this world than you have. People can’t survive on their own. You think you can be strong enough to make it by yourself, but eventually you come to understand that you aren’t as strong as you think you are. I learned that the hard way.”
She seemed to know what she was talking about, but unfortunately for me I didn’t have anyone that I could consider a friend. I could tell that she wanted to press things more, but I was a long-term project to her so she let me go without pressing any further. She only asked me to at least consider the idea of trying to make new friends.
The truly odd thing about school that year was that The Trio left me alone for the most part. Allison was still going out with Mark, though when I looked at the two of them it always seemed like Allison didn’t want to be with him, but that wasn’t any of my business. David and Jennifer became a couple by Christmas, and it looked as if the two couples were going to run the school. I continued to eat lunch at my spot in the woods, I’d even taken to setting up a small table and chair that I could sit on instead of the hard ground. On days that it rained I would forgo lunch and sit in the library to get a jump start on that day’s homework. But I was actually starting to enjoy sitting alone in the woods eating lunch. It was peaceful and seemed like a moment where I didn’t have to worry about anything. I could just simply ... be.
My dad was falling in love with his new job. I knew he would the moment I heard Mr. Moon make him the offer. There was never a doubt in my mind that my dad could do the job. There was never a doubt that he WANTED to do the job. The doubt was whether or not I would survive him taking the new job. It was killing me to be so close to Allison all the time and yet have the wall up between us. The longer we went without talking the more I felt my soul being sucked into a black hole void. That black hole seemed to eat away at any sort of happiness inside of me. I cursed Allison for the day she came into school. I cursed her for the day I first looked into those diamond green eyes.
Things with my parents were okay, but not great. I had always been close to them both. Though my mom and I fought occasionally, we still had a great relationship. We laughed about the same things. We each knew how far we could push the other before breaking them, and always seemed to respect that boundary. The times we did cross it we walked away until we cooled down and then came and apologized and hugged things out. My dad was always the one who was there to comfort me. It was him who had found me on the several occasions that I had run away. Though I was far too big for him to pick me up in a blanket and carry me, I still looked forward to his hugs, or the soft comforting voice telling me he loved me, but those memories seemed like a lifetime ago.
But now, my mom and I hardly talked. We were never mean, and I was always respectful of her, but there was a distance that neither of us knew how to fix. My dad, still the soft spoken, kind-hearted man he was, was just quiet. He didn’t know how to fix his fractured family. So he did the only thing he could do, he held them together as best he could. I tried hard not to upset them. I tried my best to behave and not lash out, but the openness of our relationship was gone. I didn’t tell them about anything that was going on in my life unless they outright asked me. My mom picked up quickly and knew she couldn’t just ask me a general question and trust me to fill in all the blanks. She had to ask specific questions in order to get a short answer that may or may not give her all the information she wanted.
Christmas that year surprised me a bit. Our Christmas traditions were rather simple. On Christmas Eve we would gather around the tree and open the presents we got from each other. Most of my parent’s gifts ‘from me’ were actually bought by my parents, but there was always one gift that I bought and paid for myself. It wasn’t anything expensive since I had no job to make money, but it was from me and my parents knew that I had gone out of my way to do something for them. So whatever I gave them, no matter how small, they cherished it.
This year for Christmas I had made them something special. I had found a really cool looking board in one of the rundown barns on the Moon’s property. I bought some basic woodworking supplies, like sandpaper and a small hand saw, and made them each a sign for their office door. I looped some twine around a couple of eyeholes to give them something to hang it on. Each sign had their name on it and their title. It wasn’t anything spectacular but again, it was handmade and came from me. So they loved it.
The shocking part was my gift that year. I hadn’t really been expecting much in the way of gifts since our relationship had been so rough lately, but my mom was eager to get me started opening my gifts.
“Okay Alex, I know you saw that you don’t have a lot of gifts under the tree, and there is a good reason for that.”
Here it comes. They were going to talk about what a disappointment I was or how I needed to stop being selfish. My mom noticed immediately and shook her head.
“It’s not a bad thing! I promise. I know things have been rough, but we are putting that aside for now. It’s Christmas after all. The reason you don’t have a LOT of gifts is because what gifts you did get were rather expensive.”
My dad handed me the first box. It was a small square box, maybe 8 inches or so on the sides. “Open this one first.”
I should probably have been respectful of the wrapping paper, but I was a 13-year-old kid! Of course I tore into it like any other kid would. Once the paper was gone, I opened the plain looking cardboard box and found another box inside. This box though held technological gold! They had gotten me a brand-new iPhone 5!
“Holy shi...” I stopped and looked at my mom, “I’m sorry!”
She laughed, “It’s okay. I’ll forgive you this time. No soap.”
“Now, Son, you’re 13 now and we want to start giving you a bit more freedom. Whether it’s tomorrow or a year from now, you’re going to start wanting to get out of the house and do more things. You’re going to want to be more independent and we want to support that. We aren’t going to put any sort of restrictions on you using your phone ... at least, not for now.”
“But you will have to be careful and remember that this is a big responsibility. You’ll need to be careful with how much data you use. We aren’t cutting you off at a certain time or limit, but if things get out of hand we will look at it then.”
“Thank you!” I rushed to them both and gave them a hug and kiss on the cheek. I went to my dad first before going to my mom. She seemed to hold me a bit tighter and for just a moment I let my mind go of any fears I had. Any worry I had was temporarily placed in a vault and I just relished the feeling of my mom’s arms wrapped around me again.
“I love you, Son,” I heard her whisper to me. She never called me son. She had always called me by my name. I always felt so grown up when she called me by my name, but now hearing her call me son, there was a brokenness in her tones and I could hear her sniffle a bit, trying to hold back tears.
“I love you too, Mom.” I paused, not letting go for a bit longer, “I’m trying...”
I left it at that. She just nodded as I sat back, and my dad handed me a few more gifts. I ended up with a really nice case for the phone as well as a few iTunes cards to go along with it. I’d had a phone for several years, but it had always been a flip phone, and I was only ever allowed to call my family or The Moon’s. I had stopped calling Allison a long time ago and had actually gone as far as deleting her number from my phone completely. So I was a bit surprised that night when I looked at my phone and saw my parents had taken the liberty of programming my phone with numbers they thought I would need. There at the top, in alphabetical order, was Allison Moon.
It was more an instinctive reaction for me to call her than an actual desire to talk to her. The phone was ringing before I knew it. I was still going over all the cool features the phone had, and looking for the games I wanted to play. I hadn’t made a single call yet, not that there was anyone I particularly wanted to call. But yet here I was making a call to the one person I told myself I didn’t want to speak to. The other line picked up and instinctively I put the phone to my ear.
It was her voice. It was so sweet and melodic. It was soothing and warm and comforting, but why did it seem happy I was calling? She probably thought it was someone else. I couldn’t bring myself to speak, instead I just listened.
“Hello? Alex? Are you there?”
What?! She knew it was me? How? This phone came with a new number.
“Alex, please, talk to me!”
I couldn’t do it. I went to hang up but not before I heard her one last time.
“Merry Christmas, Alex.” Then the line went dead as I ended the call.
When school started back after the Christmas break things took a turn for the worse. Up until that time The Trio had been leaving me alone. But as soon as I walked into the hallway, I knew that the truce had been broken. I saw them immediately heading for me and made a run for it, managing to get to my first period class before they could get to me. Thankfully, I already had my books and didn’t need to go to my locker. I could feel it ticking though, that time bomb that was going to explode as soon as The Trio got me cornered. I managed to make it all the way through lunch before they finally caught up with me. I was crossing the school grounds heading back inside when I felt Mark’s sweaty palms grab my wiry black hair and throw me to the ground.
“You stupid f•©ker!” He reared back and kicked me. “All you had to do was leave her alone, but you’re too stupid to even do that.”
David was next, pulling my hair back to look me in the eyes, “We warned you, didn’t we?” David’s eyes were dangerous. Mark was strong because he was fat, though he had lost some of the weight due to football this year. David was strong because he worked out. He was dangerous because he had been taking some sort of martial arts for several years now, not to mention the boxing his dad had enrolled him in. The look in David’s eyes said he was ready to show me exactly what he could do.
“I didn’t do anything!” I was trying to defend myself but as David held my head by the hair, Mark had grabbed my arms and was pulling back on them while forcing his knee into my back.
“Bullshit!” Jennifer chimed in. “We know you tried to call her at Christmas. You had her so freaked out she was crying for days! Don’t you get it? She can’t stand you! You disgust her!”
“We were trying to be nice. The first message we gave you was painless, but since you obviously haven’t listened, we are going to have to step things up a bit.” David let go of my hair and stood up, “I’m not going to enjoy this.”
He then paused as they all three laughed when Jennifer chimed in, “Yes you will!”
Mark unleashed another kick to my ribs, which felt like they wanted to break. He then yanked me to my feet and held me in place as David delivered a fist to my stomach, doubling me over immediately. He then quickly lifted a knee to my face while pushing down on the back of my head. I couldn’t fight back at all. I couldn’t see anything from tears running down my face. I could feel blood running all down my face but didn’t know how bad it was. The last thing I remember was David spinning and driving the point of his elbow into the side of my head. Then everything went black.
I was only out for a few seconds. I know this because when I opened my eyes, I could still see The Trio making their way back inside. It hurt to breathe but still I tried to stand up. It took a few tries to get my legs working right, but eventually I stood up and stumbled my way into the building before I fell down again just inside the door. Thankfully one of the custodians saw me and the condition I was in and immediately came to help me.
“Easy there, buddy. Don’t try to get up.” He spoke into the radio on his hip, “Ellen?” He waited for a reply, “Can you get Frank and Elizabeth to come to the west entrance of the building? Tell them it’s an emergency. Tell Elizabeth to bring her kit.”
I tried to stand up when I realized that my bookbag was still outside on the ground. I had dropped it when The Trio attacked me.
“Hey! I said don’t get up. The nurse is on her way.”
“I gotta get my bag. I need to get my books.”
“We’ll get them in a minute. Right now you are really hurt. You don’t need to move.”
I didn’t fight him on anything. I didn’t have the energy even if I had wanted to. I closed my eyes until I heard two sets of footsteps running towards me. When I opened my eyes, I saw Dr. Clark, our principal, and nurse Toole kneeling down beside me.
“Who did this Alex?” Dr. Clark was wasting no time.
“Not now Frank.” Nurse Toole stopped him as she immediately went about trying to see the extent of the damage. “Alex, this is going to sound like a stupid question, but where does it hurt?”
“My chest and my face.”
She pressed around my chest first and I winced several times as she pressed into my sore ribs. She took one look at my nose and sighed, “Well it’s broken this time. Frank, call his parents and have them meet us at the hospital. That nose is broken for sure. His ribs are tender, but I can’t tell if they are broken. He’ll need some x-rays.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a cloth. “Larry will you go get me a bag of ice from the cafeteria please?”
As the custodian hurried to do as the nurse asked, she looked back to me, “Now, Alex, I need you to lean forward for me. Your nose is broken so I want you to lean forward and breathe through your mouth. Don’t try to breathe through your nose.”
When the man returned with the ice, she wrapped the plastic bag of ice in one of the cloths she had taken out of her bag, and pressed it gently to my nose, “This will sting a little but it’s necessary.”
It took about ten minutes for the ambulance to arrive. By that time, my parents had already been called and my mom was on her way to the hospital. We were at the hospital for several hours while the doctors did x-rays of my chest. They also wanted to make sure I didn’t have a concussion. It was after five o’clock when the doctor finally came in to give me the final news.
“Well, your ribs aren’t broken so we won’t have to do anything there. You’ll be sore for a bit, but you’ll be fine. You don’t have a concussion, so we don’t have to keep you here any longer.” He looked to my mom and dad as he spoke next, “The nurse will be in shortly with the discharge papers so you can get him home. You’ll want to call and set up an appointment with an ENT in the next day or two. Keep putting ice on his nose for at least 15 minutes four times a day. If he needs anything for pain feel free to give him some Tylenol or Aleve. Anything over the counter is fine. He’ll look banged up for a few weeks, but he’ll be fine.”
The drive home was quiet, and I could tell my mother was fighting back her instincts. She wanted to press for information. She wanted to know what really happened and not just what I had told Dr. Clark. I knew she’d ask eventually. Dr. Clark may be naïve enough to have fallen for a piss poor excuse like ‘I was climbing a tree and fell. I must have hit all the branches on the way down.’ But my mother was not going to fall for it. The real question was ... how long until she wouldn’t hold back.
“Please don’t tell Allison.”
“Sweetheart, I’ve already told Debbie. She’s my friend and Peter is my boss. They needed to know why I had to leave suddenly.”
“Please!” There was a desperation in my voice. Allison had something to do with this, and I didn’t want her to have the satisfaction of knowing how much pain I was in. She’d find out eventually, but I could keep it a secret for as long as possible.
My mom sighed, “I told her not to say anything until we got back from the hospital and knew more. I’ll make sure she doesn’t mention it to Allie just yet, but you’ve got to know she’s going to find out eventually. We will keep you out of school for the next few days, at least until we can get you in to see the doctor. But you broke your nose. It’s going to bruise and be obvious that something is wrong.”
“I’ll deal with it later.”
“Alex, please tell me what happened. What ACTUALLY happened.”
“I told Dr. Clark what happened. I’ve been eating lunch outside for the last year or so. Today I decided to climb one of the trees, but I slipped and fell.”
“Don’t lie to me, Alex. I’m really worried.”
“Dr. Clark has already forbidden me from eating in the woods anymore. He said if I wanted to eat outside it had to be in the common area with all the other students. He didn’t know I was going into the woods.”
Mom wanted to press even more, but Dad stopped her, “Son, we’ll talk more about this later. Right now just go up to your room and rest. The papers said you need to sleep with your head elevated for the next day or so. Get some aspirin out of the bathroom before you go to bed.”
I did have a brief reprieve from having to confront Allison since our school didn’t start back from Christmas break until Tuesday. My parents kept me out of school the rest of the week to allow the swelling to go down and to make me an appointment. Thursday afternoon while my mom thought I was asleep, I overheard someone talking in the kitchen. Thankfully, our house was two stories and had two sets of stairs. My room was over the kitchen and had only one set of stairs that lead to it. You couldn’t reach it any other way than going through the kitchen. It was originally designed, as my parents informed me, as a guest suite, or what used to be called a maid’s quarters. I could hear my mom and Debbie Moon sitting around the kitchen table, no doubt having a glass of wine.
“I’m telling you Debbie, that boy is going to be the death of me.”
“Alex is a good kid, T.”
“Oh, it’s not that. Alex is a great kid. He’s obedient and thoughtful. You know for Christmas he made Mack and I some signs that we could hang on our office doors?”
“Awe! That’s sweet! That sounds like something Allie would do!”
“We’ve always been close, but lately I just don’t know what to do with him. I mean look at what happened this week! I get a call out of the blue telling me I need to come to the hospital because he had been in an accident.”
“Tree climbing accidents happen, girl. You can’t worry about that.”
“That’s just the thing. I know that boy. He’s my flesh and blood. I know him better than he knows himself, and I know that he’s lying. He didn’t fall out of a tree. That boy has climbed maybe two trees his entire life. He has no interest in it. Yeah he likes going out into the woods and he enjoys nature and all, but the only times I ever remember him climbing a tree is when he was scared because he was running from someone.”
“There’s a first time for everything though.”
“Maybe, but why in the hell is he eating lunch in the woods?”
I could hear a sigh from my position halfway down the stairs, thankfully I was hidden behind a wall so they couldn’t see me, but that also meant I couldn’t see them.
“I think Allie may have something to do with that.”
“Nonsense, she wouldn’t make him do that. She had to practically drag him kicking and screaming to her birthday party in first grade. I don’t know what it is that made her latch on to him like she did, but she’s been one of the best things that happened to him. She wouldn’t hurt him like that.”
“It’s not that. I think it’s just whatever has happened between them. Allie is sweet. I’ve been blessed to have her. She’s been a great kid, but if she had one major flaw, I would say it’s how stubborn she can be. It’s been a blessing and a curse. When we first moved here, before her birthday party, she would talk all the time about the kid in class that no one played with. She was obsessed with him. She kept talking about how she wanted to be friends with him. She wanted to help him, but she couldn’t ever talk to him. She said he kept running away during recess. She said she tried to find him, but everyone kept asking her to play. She’s always been the type to please everyone. It’s what’s made her so popular with people. Then came her birthday and that’s when I discovered that the boy that no one played with was Alex. When she sets her mind to something she goes after it. And that’s a good thing overall, but it also means she’s got a stubborn streak a mile wide. I don’t know what happened between the two of them, but I think whatever it is, Allie is digging her heels in. It’s probably pushing Alex farther away. Allie is worrying me though.”
“It’s her boyfriend, Mark.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t really seem her type, does he?”
“The boy is an ugly piece of shit.” They both laughed for a bit and I heard another glass being poured. “I mean who am I to judge? I know good and well Allie didn’t get her good looks from me.”
“Oh stop it, Debbie. You aren’t ugly.”
“Thanks, girl, but I’m okay with it. I know who I am. And I can be honest about it. Peter loves me because of who I am not what I look like. How Mark looks isn’t what bothers me. It’s this feeling I get when he’s around. I don’t trust him. Peter doesn’t either. We’ve talked about it with her but she just says we are overreacting.”
“Allie has always seemed to be a good judge of character.”
“Maybe, but she’s just a kid. I’d feel so much better if I knew Alex was around to keep an eye out for her but...”