His gut tight, Jamie Ramjattan trudged down the steps from his family’s apartment and onto the street. His small, almost pretty face was a study in dread. Another day, another attack. The last two weeks, he’d had one school day without the misery and that was because he’d hitched a ride with Karen, the senior who lived upstairs. Occasionally she looked down upon him and showed kindness. Not often though and he was too embarrassed to tell her about Bryan and Terrell Glover.
He couldn’t guess what other kids knew about his torment. When anyone looked his way, he blushed and ducked his head. The only person he felt comfortable with was Tony, but Tony who suffered from inadequately controlled epilepsy was frequently unavailable. Jamie’s father had returned to Ethiopia two years ago, supposedly to visit relatives. They had not heard from him since. The last thing his mother Nina, needed to worry about was Jamie’s social problems. It was all she could do to hold their small family together. His sister was only three.
There were two main ways to walk to school and one of them took an extra ten minutes. In addition, it crossed into Keane territory, which covered an area of four square blocks. While the Keanes and their cousins the Lynches were older and mainly concerned with running crime, occasionally their kids beat the crap out of anyone young and male who wandered by. So while it was usually safer to go that way, there were occasional exceptions and a workover by the Keanes and Lynches was more likely to put a person in hospital than one by the Glover twins.
“Are you asleep?” asked Kisha Hannis sarcastically as she bobbed past with her friend Marlene.
Marlene was new to the school, having moved from Delaware a couple of weeks earlier. She was hot. Not just regular hot, but over the edge. Her caramel skin and salmon cheeks glowed and her large, uptilted eyes knocked his breath out. So far, she was quiet and stayed in the background, but Jamie knew that with looks like that, give it time, she’d be unable to talk down the street unhounded. Occasionally, he let himself enjoy fantasies in which he protected her from this. Which was hilarious considering how he himself was far from safe on the street.
Kisha was another matter. Not bad looking, but all the time nasty. As if she had wasps in her underwear.
“Yeah,” he said back, “I’m sleeping standing up.” He wished the girls would ask him to walk with them, a pipe dream if there ever was one.
“Sounds like something you’d do,” shot back Kisha.
He said nothing, but did catch Marlene sneaking him a shy, appraising glance. Forget it, he said to himself.
He thought about walking close behind them, but decided that Bryan and Terrell would get even more pleasure out of kicking his ass with the girls as witnesses. Then Marlene would hold the memory forever of seeing him on the ground all twisted up, his backpack emptied all over the street and snot or blood running out of his nose. Maybe this time he’d piss his pants to add to the effect. He waited till the girls were out of sight, though that meant he might be late to school.
At the end of the block, the Glovers stepped out of the shadows right on schedule. Terrell twisted Jamie’s ear, yanking his head halfway to the ground, while Bryan bent his left ring finger until he yelped with pain.
“Hey, moron,” Bryan said, “see, I’m leaving your important finger untouched.” He spoke with a north Jersey accent like Tony Soprano though they were nowhere near north Jersey.
Terrell let go of his ear and kicked him hard in the butt, which propelled him face forward onto the pavement. To finish off, they emptied his book bag onto the street, kicking the books and notebooks as far as they could. This would explain Jamie’s almost daily habit of handing in torn and dirty homework. It was difficult to explain this to a teacher without bringing upon himself even more trouble.
The monsters spit in his direction, not bothering to hit him, then darted off down the street. He would see them again in study hall, though fortunately his assigned seat was on the other side of the auditorium.
When he stood up, he saw that his jeans were torn on one knee. The knee was bleeding and one of his teeth seemed to be loose. He knew this mother definitely did not have money to pay a dentist and would freak out over the jeans. This whole situation was becoming unbearable. He was in tenth grade – one more year of this to go, but possibly two since the twins might be too stupid to pass. They were a year older and already held back once.
A woman walked past, stepped daintily over his spilled belongings and gave him a pitying look. She seemed a kind person and for an insane moment, Jamie wanted her to hold and comfort him like a baby. I’m losing it, he thought. Maybe they’d punched him in the head one too many times.
Jamie wished he had an older brother or some male to help him learn how to defend himself. If he had, though it might go against his nature to fight, he would at least have had some backing.
In third period, he watched Mr. Bell. The English teacher was a confident man. In his early forties, tall, broad shouldered and built like an Olympic swimmer, he did not seem the type to dissect Macbeth or Lord of the Flies. Yet, he did, and with enthusiasm.
“So what do you think, class? If the lot of you were marooned on an island, would you all degenerate into savages? Would some poor sucker become Piggy while others turn into murderous brutes and the rest of you into sheeple? Think, my friends, who would be Ralph and who would become Jack? Do any of you have a secret side that could turn into the murderous Roger?”
There was silence before Susan Dern threw her hand up. Jamie studied her while experiencing his usual revulsion. Why? She wasn’t bad looking, but there was something about her that repulsed him. Simultaneously, he felt guilty about feeling that way. How did he know others didn’t feel the same about him? Was that why some people picked on him?
Jamie knew that should his world suddenly turn into Lord of the Flies, he would be Piggy. He was already Piggy. And Terrell and Bryan were Jack. Evil, horrible Jack.
How he missed having Tony to talk to. Apparently his epilepsy was acting up again. No sign of him all day.
After school, he hid in the hall near the art room until most people had left the building. The teachers were at a meeting. Possibly, he reasoned, by the time he got back to his neighborhood, the twins would have lost interest. But one block from home, they darted from behind a parked van. To make matters worse, Jamie thought he saw Kisha and Marlene between two of the houses across the street. They’d get an eyeful now.
“Hey, Faggot!” yelled Terrell, the worst of the two. He and Bryan were not identical, but fraternal twins. Jamie had always suspected that left to himself, Bryan would not engage in such activities. He was the quieter twin and went along with his dominant brother.
“Leave me alone,” Jamie muttered, but Terrell had his arms twisted behind his back faster than he could blink, then tilted them up so that Jamie crunched forward in pain.
Terrell went on. “Why does garbage like you even exist? Huh? Huh?” He let go of Jamie’s arms to push him forward. Jamie crashed against a garbage can, then smacked his face on the curb. It bled profusely.
Across the street he heard girl voices, then nothing. He was mortified. What had Marlene seen?
Bryan gave Jamie a halfhearted kick, then ran after his brother who was yelling as he galloped away. “Next time we’re gonna kill you!”
Indeed, they might, thought Jamie as he staggered to his feet. The street seemed to be reeling. He had to grab hold of a parked car to steady himself.
Since they’d taken off down the street, he decided to cut through a nearby alley, something he normally avoided since it was an excellent place for the twins to ambush him. It looked empty now, though a dumpster stood halfway down and anything could be hiding behind that.
His footsteps echoed as he walked. High up was a narrow rectangle of sky. His heart pounded as he neared the dumpster. At this point though, he felt that his spirit was almost broken. What did it matter if someone was behind it?
Something rustled as he reached it. Expecting the twins or someone like them to spring out, Jamie stopped cold. The noise continued. Was it an animal?
“Boy?” said a raspy male voice. Jamie jumped.
“Come round here!”
As if being led to slaughter, Jamie moved around the dumpster. At first he saw nothing. Then a pile of filthy rags and cardboard moved, a foot appeared, an arm and finally a head. A head as dirt encrusted as the rest of the pile.
“Having a bad time, are we?” said this person. Jamie couldn’t tell how old he was. Anywhere from forty to seventy.
“What do you mean?” Jamie said, though he knew perfectly well. But how would this…this person know anything about that?
“You know what I mean. Those boys that bother you.” The man struggled to sit up and looked as if he was growing out of the cardboard pile, like a mushroom out of leaves.
“This been going on quite a while now, eh? How long you think you can stand it? After a while, you might get seriously hurt. Your head smashed into something, lights out. Know what I mean?”
Jamie nodded, at a loss for words.
“Brain damage or your teeth knocked out. Maybe a stick in your eye.”
Jamie’s expression showed the horror of that thought.
The man stood up, brushing chunks of debris from his person. Erect, he was relatively short, though he had a big head.
“You see, son, I’ve come along at just the right time. I’m going to make you an offer.”
Jamie backed up.
“I’m not a pervert, not a serial killer, nor even a sociopath. You can’t imagine what I am. But back to the offer. You don’t deserve to have to endure this crap. So, I’m going to give you a choice. Whichever one you take, you’ll keep for three days. After that, you’ll return to your regular self.”
Jamie sighed. Obviously a nut case, one of the types his mother warned him about. He tried to edge past, hoping to make a run for it, but a claw shot out and seized his arm.
“You’re being offered a gift! Don’t you see, ungrateful wretch! If I were you, I’d take it before I change my mind!”
“Yes, sir,” mumbled Jamie. The man let go, but where he had gripped the arm still burned.
“Aren’t you curious about what I’m offering?”
“Yes, sir,” said Jamie, though all he really wanted was to escape this weirdo. There was something not right about the man’s eyes.
“Sit down.” He gestured toward the pile, then as Jamie hesitated, said, “There aren’t any rats in it if that’s what you’re thinking. I can’t guarantee about bugs.”
“Kid, there’re two ways of going about things in this world and I’m going to give you a choice of which of those two you want to use for the next three days.”
Jamie was wondering if he was going to end up dead in that dumpster. His heart still pounded.
The man held up one long finger. “One. You can fill those little bastards with terror. A touch of your finger anywhere on their body and whammo, they’re scared out of their little pea brains! You’ll have them groveling at your feet. Believe me, that’ll be the last time any of ‘em come near you, unless it’s to beg for their lives or lick your shoes. Get it?”
“Yeah,” said Jamie tentatively, interested in spite of himself. Though he was wondering why, if the guy had power like that to give away, what was he doing sleeping behind a dumpster in an alley?
“You like that idea, huh?” said the man. “Just thinking about it gives you a hard-on.” He laughed, showing perfect white teeth that didn’t match the rest of him.
“Got your little fantasies going? Not only would the boys all respect you, but the girls might be hanging around too, right? Or so you think?”
Jamie didn’t say anything. He had been fantasizing a little.
“Well, you chew on that while I take a little swig.” The man fished out a paper bag from somewhere and chugged from the bottle inside, his Adam’s apple bouncing.
“Okay,” he said. “Now for the other option. Ready?”
“Instead of that touch of your finger instilling fear, it inspires love.”
“What?” said Jamie. He was scared now. Was the guy going to try something perverted? He’d run like hell.
But the man did not move. “I see love scares you,” he said. “Let me explain this. You touch the person and this person is filled with love for you.”
Jamie tried to subtly edge sideways.
The man laughed. “I’m not referring to sex, boy, perverted or normal. Nor am I speaking of romantic blither. Romance is not love, it’s pheromones, hormones, a chemical reaction that perpetuates the species. Love, my friend, is another matter. Your mother loves you, possibly even your father. A person may love his spouse, his dog, his pet snake; some people are capable of loving all beings – those types who live in the jungle doctoring the sick, others who’ll risk their lives for the whales. Someone tending her garden, an artist working her craft. That is all love. What love does is soften creatures up. Think about it. You don’t want to hurt someone or something that you love.”
Jamie was quiet, his gaze gone hazy.
“So which is it, son? Which power do you want? Either way, things’ll change.”
What was happening here? Was this lunatic making a joke? But what if it wasn’t a joke, although how could it not be?
His mother had read him fairy stories when he was little and what was happening now sounded just like one. If it was, though how could that be, the right thing was to choose the “love” power. But he let himself imagine the other.
What a rush it would be to have the Puke Brothers grab him, then go rigid with terror! Imagine them backing off, eyes bugging out of their pointy heads, tripping and falling as they tried to escape. That’d be worth a million bucks. No, a billion. And probably once would be enough; he wouldn’t even need the three days of power. Maybe then, even if no one liked him except for Tony, at least people would respect him. A few of the kids would want to hang out with him, like being around the mob boss.
But he caught himself and laughed. Like he was actually falling for this crap. So, just to humor the guy and get the whole thing over with, he said, “I’ll take the love thing.”
The man smiled, shot out his finger and lightly touched Jamie’s sleeve. “You got it, kid,” he said. Then, without another word, he sank back down into his dirty pile and appeared to fall asleep.
Jamie mumbled a soft “thanks” and ran like hell.
Outside the alley, the street was sunny. March had come in like a lamb. All Jamie wanted, after that weird encounter, was to get home, chow down on some leftovers and veg out in front of the TV. There was no one on the street as he let himself in. A minor reprieve from the sadistic gods who apparently ran the world.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” said Nina when she got home.
His little sister crawled onto his lap. When Jamie pushed her down, not relishing her usual kicking and squirming, something bizarre happened. The little girl stopped still and stared into his eyes. The longer she looked, the more her expression changed to one of adoration.
Nina, busy and tired, had disappeared into the kitchen.
When Jamie stood up to help his mother set the table, his sister followed as if mesmerized. Jamie pretended not to realize what had happened. It seemed as frightening as it was pleasing. If he admitted it to himself, then he’d have to admit much more.
Next morning, he opened his eyes with a great mix of emotion. His sleep had been fitful and his stomach now too full of butterflies to digest the cereal his mother had poured. The Glovers were waiting for him at one of their usual spots, behind a van belonging to a plumber. “Lookie what we have here!” Terrell yelled to his brother. “A Neanderthal escaped from the museum!”
He grabbed Jamie by the back of his collar, yanking it so hard it almost strangled him. Bryan ripped Jamie’s backpack off and flung it onto the street where it slid under an SUV.
It took all of Jamie’s concentration to bring up his hand and take hold of Terrell’s arm. When he did, the arm abruptly let go. For a moment, nothing happened, then he heard Bryan’s quizzical voice. “Ter? What’s the matter?”
Jamie swung around. Terrell was standing still, staring at Jamie with an almost pained expression.
“Ter?” repeated Bryan. He poked his brother in the shoulder. “You okay?”
“Jamie,” said Terrell in a tone of voice Jamie had never heard before, all soft and dreamy. “Hey bro, you wanna sit with us at lunch?”
“What the-” Bryan grabbed his brother and tried to yank him away. “Did you hit your head?” He seemed to have forgotten all about torturing Jamie.
Jamie’s finger shot out and touched Bryan on the back. The boy jerked around, his mouth hanging open. “Hey, yeah, Jamie,” he said. “You wanna sit with us?”
Time seemed to stop while Jamie considered this offer. Should he pretend that all the horrible stuff had never happened? Should he overlook the fact that these miserable bastards might be treating other kids the same way they did him? Part of him wanted to see them dead, their heads smashed like pumpkins on the street. But another detached and curious part enjoyed the amazing paradox of turning bullies into followers.
A smile slowly spread over his face. “Why not?” he said, imagining the looks on everyone’s face when he plunked his tray down next to these two idiots. If Tony was at school, he would be speechless.
Yet, he had doubts. What had just happened had to be a daydream. Maybe Terrell had suffered a stroke or something – his family would find out later and by tomorrow he’d be in the hospital or maybe even dead. Jamie’s uncle had a stroke and he’d gotten all funny too. Even if this power thing was real, would it just wear off and the Glovers would be beating the crap out of him three days from now? Did that weird guy mean its effects would last three days or the power itself? Jamie couldn’t remember.
But Terrell and a very quiet Bryan were waiting for him in the cafeteria and Terrell even apologized for the nasty treatment, over and over. Tony wondered aloud what had happened, but good-naturedly accepted the change.
Not only that, but anyone Jamie touched, on purpose or by accident, was now so nice that he wondered if maybe he was the one who’d had a stroke.
Mr. Landrini, the biology teacher who usually was smirky whenever he called on him, as if whatever Jamie was planning to say was the epitome of idiocy, was now pleasant and even chatty. Mrs. Dudash, the home skills teacher, usually acted as if Jamie was invisible, but now had him licking icing pans and taking home leftover treats for “when he got hungry later.” And Marly Sinclair, the social queen of the school and a senior, had, after bumping into Jamie in the hall, taken him under her wing and was encouraging him to run for junior class president. She had even hinted at his possibly dating her younger sister in ninth grade.
This last thing was tempting, but the only girl who interested him was Kisha’s friend, Marlene. Marlene whom he usually only saw once a day after fifth period when they passed in the hall. Occasionally, she said hello, but more often didn’t notice him.
He was in the third day of the power with only the rest of the afternoon and evening left, when it occurred to him that his only chance to win the affection of Marlene was coming up after fifth period. Once the bell rang, he’d have two minutes to decide and if he opted for yes, then he’d need to touch her somehow as they passed each other.
Social Studies crawled on as slooowww as molasses, as his grandma used to say. Parts of him started to itch, his loose tooth twinged, he thought a bug was crawling in his hair. The teacher droned on and on about passing bills in Congress, a subject as boring as counting blades of grass. Would he touch Marlene or not? If he did, and if the effects lasted beyond that day, he would have himself the girlfriend he wanted, or at least a good friend, and if she turned out to be only that, he could still watch her big, sexy eyes any time he felt like it, enjoy looking at her smooth skin and thick brown hair any time he wanted. She would be his, one way or the other.
But something nagged at him from another part of his mind. It wouldn’t be kosher to use magic on Marlene. The voice reminded him of their neighbor’s, Mrs. Katz, who’d once explained to him what “kosher” meant.
Why would it then be kosher to use the magic on anyone at all? Why was Marlene special?
Jamie didn’t know the answer to that, but he did feel there was something different about Marlene.
“Okay, class, finish the chapter for homework, then answer the questions at the end. And watch the news tonight!”
The bell rang and Jamie endured a terrible stab of fear. This was it.
Tony was beside him as he squeezed out the door. “Hey, you wanna play Dragon Age after school?”
“Um, yeah, okay,” Jamie said, trying to get away from him. Normally, he’d be glad to be with Tony, but not now. He had 2 minutes to think, this was it. “Listen, I gotta go talk to someone,” he told him and rushed off.
He needed to slow down to his normal pace, not walk too fast or he might miss her somehow; he wasn’t sure which room she was coming out of. His heart thudded and his throat closed up; he sweated like he’d been running from the Glovers. Then, there she was, heading right toward him and it was now or never.
The man in the alley flashed into his mind, his finger held up as if in warning, and he suddenly remembered a TV show he’d seen in which a husband locked his wife in the house. He felt as if heaven and earth were rising up to tell him no. And so, he kept his hands to himself as the girl passed by, not seeing him, not knowing what had almost happened.
He suffered a moment of despair, as if since he’d passed up this chance, no female would ever come his way on her own. But then it all lifted and he was free. He was light and strong and knew that he’d done the right thing. The point, he understood, was to trust things. The right things would come along on their own, the right girl when she should, the right friends, the right opportunities. It hit him that the man in the alley – he had come along at exactly the right moment.
After school, he met Tony for the walk home and allowed Terrell and Bryan to tag along. By midnight, just as in a fairy tale, his power would be gone. Would the twins be waiting to smack his head in the next morning? Unlikely.
“You guys want to play Dragon Age at my house?” he asked.
Naturally, they all did.
Margaret Karmazin – http://margaretkarmazin.blogspot.com/ – My credits include over one hundred stories published in literary and national magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Potomac Review, Confrontation, Absent Willow Review, Allegory, Pennsylvania Review and Wild Violet. My stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review and Words of Wisdom were nominated for Pushcart awards and Piper’s Ash, Ltd. published a chapbook of my sci-fi, COSMIC WOMEN. I helped write the introduction for and have a story included in STILL GOING STRONG, stories in TEN TWISTED TALES, MOTA 9, ZERO GRAVITY and CIRCLING URANUS, and a novel, REPLACING FIONA, published by etreasurespublishing.com.