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The Beast in Me (completed)
Tomorrow was going to be my sixteenth birthday. I wasn't expecting anything great. Mom was still feeling sick again so I felt I should go easy on her. Sue said she might drop in. If she felt like it. Sue was my older sister. She was twentytwo and had moved to the big city a few years ago. She felt she had no future in Baskerville so she went hunting for a job in the big city. Finding a job there hadn't been the easiest thing in her life. But she did find something, I was proud of her.
Mom had liked Sue to take up college. Yeah, sure. Tuition fees were horrific and what Mom could possibly scrape up was hardly a semester's worth. So Mom dropped the issue quickly when reality broke in on her.
"Just don't do anything stupid..." Mom had begged Sue ominously, sending her a long look. Sue had shrugged her shoulders lightheartedly. I knew what she was thinking: anything was better than to be stuck in this place. Was it really?
Baskerville was a small town virtually in the middle of nowhere in the Canadian forests. We had a river and a dam, though. Damn dam, I mused. But I liked hanging out ("playing" sounded immature in my ears nowadays but amounted to the same thing) around the electric power plant that the dam was feeding. Otherwise, there wasn't much adventure or pastimes to fill the days with unless you were seriously into outdoor living and hiking. Apart from that, it was either the internet or various team sports. I sucked at physical activities, so you know how spent my time.
There were a lot of frustrated kids and youths around here for sure. Frustration fed restlessness and in turn aggressiveness. So school was like running the gauntlet unless you belonged to an accepted group and were popular -- to a certain degree at least. I wasn't exactly at the pinnacle of popularity, in fact, I was a bit of an outsider if truth be told. But I tried to avoid undue exposure to the "cool guys" and kept to the fringes of any halfway safe group. Others were less lucky and got bullied around. The worst bully was Frank Sawatzki, the son of Eugene (better known as Gene) Sawatzki who owned the lumber business in town. His family was loaded. Frank definitely felt superior and he took it out on those who showed a weakness. Teachers tended to look the other way because they didn't want to get involved in a dispute with Gene Sawatzki.
I wished I had the guts or strength to do more than ball my fists in the pocket when I saw Frank have another row with someone. But who was I to face him and his narrow-minded cronies? What good was getting a bloodied nose myself? I was all but invisible in his universe and it was good advice to keep it that way. I hated that solution. It made me feel weak.
I took another look at the calendar. For some reason I noticed that the moon was going to be in its full phase this night. I sighed. Somehow full moon tended to make me sleep worse. Was it superstition or just a rational fact that it was easier to have a deep sleep when it was truly dark outside?
“Byron.” Mom calling. “Byron!!”
I stumbled down the stairs and into the kitchen. Breakfast. Fast.
“Don't be late to school again, now!” Mom said without turning around from the sink where she was peeling an apple.
God forbid! Wouldn't want to miss Lavender's history lesson for the world, I thought sarcastically. Dave Lavender - the one who told us first about the myth of Baskerville. A ludicrous story of how the village was at peril if ever “the Beauty and the Beast were to fall in love”. Actually, I've heard about as many versions as there were storytellers. But it all came to the same nebulous conclusion. No one really knew where it originally came from. Some thought it was an old Native American myth that had been modified and amended. We school kids often suspected some vague old-fashioned ideas of morality and chastity behind it. If nothing else, it gave the people of Baskerville a shared identity. Hurrah for us!
I gave mom a good-morning hug and then shoved a few pieces of apple in my mouth and grabbed the sandwich that she had made for me.
“'ankch 'om!” I said thickly with the sandwich sticking out from my face. I flushed the bite down with a gulp of water from the glass that had been waiting on the table as well. “How do you feel this morning?” I asked, knowing that mom was once again suffering from undetermined pains in her lower body. She turned around and grinned,
“Don't worry, Byron! It will get better, as it always does...” she tried to comfort me. I cocked my head skeptically but she just ruffled my hair. I wanted to reply but she beat me to the gun, “...now eat up and get going. The bus will be there in a few minutes!” She gave me a kiss on my cheek. I nodded and decided to quit worrying; for now.
I donned my jacket, it was still chilly this time of year. I jammed in the rest of the sandwich in my mouth and pushed the door open with my shoulder. Then I was off.
When I got out of the gate I started running down the street. The bus stop was just a few hundred feet down the road. The air still felt moist and sticky, fog lay in the valley and hadn't been burnt away by the rising sun yet. A green country, forest and hills as far as you could see. I loved the calmness of our valley, it made me happy. What more did one need? A future? A goal? Yeah well. I'll find out in time, I guess.
I heard a grunting. Then a rattling. My head flew to the left and I was looking up the yard of Mr. Henderson's place. He was an old man, 86 or 87, I think. He lost his wife a couple of years ago. Since then he had, if possible, become even grumpier than before. The little kids on the street tried to avoid playing too close to his yard and getting yelled at for this and that. I, for one, tried using friendly tactics and greeted him regardless, though he hardly greeted back. I'm a sucker for people who suffer from hardships. I never believe they can truly be mean in the core of their hearts.
Geez, I spotted that his walking frame seemed to have gotten stuck in the cracks of his walkway tiles. Again. His mumbled curses were piling up to a crescendo. I inhaled sharply, contemplating my choices. The bus wasn't gonna wait for me. I would safely make it there if I kept on going. Mr. Henderson would probably be capable of pulling himself out of his tight spot sooner or later. But just when I thought I had made up my mind not to mind, I felt my steps come to a halt. I saw his tiny dog racing up and down the yard barking like a mad dog but with a comically high pitch that wouldn't frighten a bird from the lawn.
After another uncontrolled jerk, the old man lost his balance and fell sideways to the ground. Before I knew it, I had dashed through his gate and a few feet into his yard, nearly catching him in his fall.
“Are you alright, Mr. Henderson?” I shoved my arms in his arm pits and gently pulled him upright. He felt lighter than I had imagined. Standing on his feet again, he looked at me with a mixture of gratitude, surprise, and residual grumpiness. He opted for playing his reputed role.
“Running around and teasing my dog again, are we? Playing hookey? Shouldn't you be in school by now?” I took that as a “thank you” and bent down to the little dog who was jumping at my leg. I stroked him a couple of times and he calmed down like a lamb. He even started licking my hand.
“Good boy! Dodger.” I recalled his name with ease, remembering the countless times that Mr. Henderson had yelled it out of the window to beckon his dog in or to make him be quiet -- rather unsuccessfully -- at both. I got up and looked at Mr. Henderson again who blinked a couple of times at a loss of words. His shell was crumbling. He reached out and squeezed my arm,
“Well... I guess I'll have to do without my morning newspaper for breakfast today...” So that's what had him negotiating this treacherous passageway to the mailbox. I quickly freed his vehicle, made sure he grabbed it safely and then turned myself towards the gate,
“No problem, I can get it for you. Think you can make it back alone?”
He just grunted. I flushed realizing he might take it I was patronizing him. But I said nothing more but simply fetched the paper for him. He sat down inside and I handed him his reading for the day. He looked at me again. His grumpiness seemed gone,
“Ts'your birthday tomorrow, ain't it?” A bit surprised I nodded and before I could say anything, he continued, “Sixteen, eh? Nice age...” He seemed to reel back in his memories. Then he looked down and found Dodger still fondly playing at my trousers. “Look at'im: Dodger... never a quiet second with strangers around... he likes you!” The old man said amazed. I knelt down and started rubbing Dodger behind the ears.
“He's a good dog, Mr. Henderson. A bit spoiled... but isn't every loved dog?”
Mr. Henderson sat perplexed for half a minute before he suddenly seemed to have sighted something terrible outside the window and he grabbed my arm again but this time to shake it.
“You're missing your bus, Byron! You gotta run! Don't let an old man like me keep you from getting to school on time!”
I whirled around and saw how the bus had just parked itself at the stop, letting a few kids jump on. Without a second thought, I pushed open the door and ran to catch the bus. I waved, I yelled, I cursed, and I screamed but when I got to the stop I could only watch the bus turn around the next corner and out of sight. Yepp, I'd be late for school again.
My shoulders slumped and my eyes bored into the dirt road. What now? OK, no big deal if I missed my first class. Lavender would probably note my absence and book my second strike. I wasn't in the mood about thinking of the reason for my first strike, as it was a painful memory. So that left me almost a whole school term to watch myself if not to get caught a third time and have the principal send a ``blue letter'' to mom. It wasn't that I was afraid of what she would do to me, I just didn't want anything else to upset her.
Mom seemed so fragile to me. Almost everything seemed to worry her. Doom seemed just around the corner: the food we eat was unhealthy, young people drinking too much, climate change, the cracks in the dam that nobody was mending because of the unclear responsibilities. But most of all, it was Sue and me she worried about. Sometimes I had the feeling that she was only living for the day both of us would be self-supported and that she dreaded the thought that she might not be able to keep alive that long to see the day.
So anything I could do to keep worrying thoughts away from Mom, I'd do. At times I wondered what life had been with my dad around. I had no memories of him, he left us when I was about three. Mom never talked about him and Sue said she hardly remembered him. I never bought that though. Once I caught Sue saying that he had become strange before he left. But when I try to pin her down, Sue would deny that she ever said that.
So here I was. School was about a three mile ride with the bus. I could take the bike and I'd barely make it in time, more likely I'd miss the bell and get caught by our principal and suffer humiliation in front of the class... but at least avoid a complete strike. OK, so that was an alternative. I started heading back but instantly I realized that there was no way that I could avoid that mom would notice because I needed to go past the kitchen window to fetch my bike. That was no good either.
I stopped in my tracks again and heaved a sigh. What now? It was like choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea. I started walking. I walked faster. I broke into a run. I laughed at myself. Running to school would not save me from coming too late. Let alone me being a pathetic runner and that I was far from fit. I knew my lungs would start burning in a minute and that I would succumb to side aches after about the same time.
Grimly, I accelerated, I wanted this silly attempt to end quickly. My brown, middle-long shock of hair fluttered in the cool morning wind. I breathed lightly. I heard the crunching sound of gravel beneath my soles. I slunk into the woods following a convenience trail, thinking ironically that this would shorten the distance by a whopping few hundred feet compared to the paved road that the bus took. Of course it would be uneven and treacherous. I'd need to jump over sticks and stones, go up and down elevations as the terrain dictated.
I kept on going. The sound of speed whistling in my ears. Soon I would be gasping for air, I was convinced. Fiercely I kicked the gear up another notch. C'mon, where's the breaking point, bring it on. Left and right the tree trunks zoomed by in a blur. I never knew how much I enjoyed running, I caught myself thinking. This was a piece of cake. Adrenaline was pumping through my veins. That's likely why I didn't feel my legs other than as the frame of an automobile.
I emerged from the woods still making headway, not loosing pace. In fact, the smooth pavement seemed to make me bounce springier than before. I inclined my body to take a sharp left, followed by a right turn and then I already saw the school parking lot. Geez, I'm here already! I saw how the school bus I had missed pulled up at the curb and opened its doors.
I stopped abruptly, trying to catch my breath. But it was unnecessary, my heart rate was already normal again. Wow, I never knew running was that easy. I still was in awe about what I had accomplished. From my distance, I watched my class mates disembark, one by one.
Then she appeared: Mandy. Like an angel, she glided down the steps and out into the brilliant sunlight, Narnia and Dalia following at her heels like servants. My heart was melting. She shook her head, adjusting the strains of her long blond hair to make a perfect frame for her marble-smooth complexion. I was a goner for getting her attention, as hard as I tried she wouldn't give me the time of day. That didn't keep me from trying though.
And then I saw her perfect, pearly white rows of teeth flash when her rosy lips parted to greet the sun with a smile. She closed her eyes for a second and when they opened again our gaze fused for an instant.
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