It’s the one hundred and twenty second day of 4th grade, Chad Warren mentally notes. It is the sixth time this year that he’s worn his checkered button-down with his favorite pair of jeans. Not that he actively keeps track of it. It just . . . sticks out for him.
He’s on the swing set, pumping his feet half-heartedly. Right now he’s too busy observing Gretta Feinson screaming hysterically because Bobby Tidwell is dangling a bug in front of her face. She’s almost crying now. Two of her girlfriends, Tracy Martin and Tanya Shepherd, throw a few rocks at Bobby, who howls and starts chasing them. They run inside, and Bobby doesn’t follow them.
The ten-year old boy shakes his head and starts pumping in earnest, going higher and higher, until it feels as though he’s almost flying. He goes up, up, up—and then falls back down rapidly and it all starts over again. Swings are radical, he thinks. Whoever came up with them deserves an Academy Award. Except, aren’t those for movies?
Bobby is now tormenting Eddie Rogers, a kid in Chad’s class. The bully’s taken away Eddie’s glasses. Eddie can hardly see without them and is groping around. Bobby laughs.
Chad scowls. Bobby’s almost twelve, but he’s still in fourth grade because he had to repeat a year. He’s a pain, and Chad’s had enough of it. But what can he do?
Eddie’s starting to sob now. Bobby’s laughing harder and starts making fun of Eddie. Chad’s about to get off the swing and go give Bobby a piece of his mind when—
“Psst.” It comes from behind him. Chad tries to twist around to see who it is, but he’s still going too fast. He jumps off and lands on his feet, wincing. Then he turns around. “Hey, kid,” the voice says.
Chad frowns. The voice belongs to a kid with honest-to-God red hair. It’s reddish brown, but still. The boy looks a bit younger than Chad, maybe nine. He’s standing there with his arms crossed, a serious expression on his face. He has freckles, and his shirt is covered in dirt. He stares at Chad.
“Who you calling ‘kid’?” Chad says, suppressing the urge to look down at the shorter kid.
“You. Who else? What’s your name?” The kid scratches his red hair and waits patiently.
“Chad Warren. You?”
“Dayne Williams. That’s D-a-y-n-e. Want to help me?”
“With what?”
The kid—Dayne—rolls his eyes. “With Bobby Barton, what else?”
“Will we get in trouble?”
“Yup. But Bobby needs to learn a lesson. Wanna help?”
“Uh—”
“I’ve got a plan. You can run if you don’t want to get in trouble.”
Chad turns and looks at Eddie, who’s still crying. In his mind, Bobby’s the antagonist—though Chad doesn’t know that word; Bobby’s just the bad dude. Therefore, the bad guy must be stopped. And to make it better, he now has a sidekick—a red-haired third-grader named Dayne. What could be better?
Finally, Chad says, “Sure. I’ll help.”
Dayne grins. “Cool beans. Now help push me.”
“What?”
Dayne gets on one of the swings and starts pumping. Chad pushes him as hard as he can. Dayne has a wild grin on his face, and Chad can’t help but grin back.
“Ready?” Dayne asks.
“Ready,” Chad replies. He has no idea what the frick Dayne is going to do, but he’s not going to back out now.
“HEY FACEPASTE!” Dayne bellows to Bobby Barton at the top of his lungs. Everybody in the playground turns to look at him. “Why don’t you pick on somebody your own IQ, jerk?”
Bobby turns red in the face, and then throws Eddie’s glasses onto the ground. He comes running towards the swing set, and Chad wonders what’s going to happen.
And when it does happen, he can’t quite believe it.
As he swings out towards Bobby and Eddie and all the others, Dayne launches himself off of the swing, screaming as loudly as he possibly can, “GERONIMO!” Arms and legs flailing, he’s heading straight for Bobby, who’s now frozen and can’t quite believe what’s going on.
Then they collide.
Dayne smashes into Bobby at full force, and they go to the ground hard, both of them screaming for a moment. Then there’s a stunned silence. Nobody can quite move, not even Chad.
He snaps out of it, and goes running towards the two boys. Bobby’s got a huge bump on the back of his head, and he’s cut and scraped all over. Dayne, who’s rolled off of Bobby, has some cuts and bruises as well, but his left arm is twisted at an angle. Chad cautiously touches the younger kid, who opens his eyes and grimaces.
“My new partner-against-crime,” he says, panting for air, “I think I just broke my arm.”
With that, Chad Warren’s new–and first–best friend Dayne Williams passes out.
And Chad knows they’ll be in for what could quite possibly become the adventure of a lifetime.

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Stream of Consciousness: Tralfamadorian Poetry

It’s the first day of autumn today and there’s a literal explosion—

(not that kind of explosion, so maybe metaphorical)

 —of colors everywhere as you pedal down the street, so maybe it is an explosion considering that yesterday it was pretty much a cool summer day and the trees were green but today they’re burning reds and smoldering oranges and cheerful yellows—

(yellow is the color of happiness, I know because van Gogh said so, he ate yellow paint to try to get the happiness and to escape the prison of life)

(I wonder if I’m happy)

—and it really does feel like the first day of fall, and the air is crisp and while you can’t see your breath yet, there’s this undeniable charged atmosphere of autumn that makes you feel alive and grand and glorious except you’re not really feeling any of those except for maybe alive and then you take a left and see Trayvon Robinson from your geometry class and he probably sees you—

(of course he sees me, but he doesn’t really see me, nobody ever does)

—then he’s gone and you’re still pedaling, harder and faster and you’re sort of standing up, the wind tearing at your face, tears running down your cheek, but you’re still grinning even if you don’t really feel exactly like grinning but you definitely don’t feel like frowning—

(yet, I don’t feel like frowning yet)

—so all you do is keep moving until the park entrance looms in front of you and you zip through the dewy iron gates and nod at Mr. Feldmann, who used to be your mailman when you were four and you still remember waiting for him to pass by every day, but now he’s at the park and you still like to visit him on the weekends and listen to the stories he tells, because they’re the best and you’d rather do nothing else than listen to him—

(if I had the chance, I would do something else, but I don’t, so I go there, and I’ll keep going there, and maybe the yellow paint will help after all maybe it will it just might)

—and you make a mental note to bake some oatmeal-raisin cookies and take them over to him tomorrow so that means you have to get some raisins because your parents don’t care for them and neither do you so much but you haven’t made cookies for Mr. Feldmann since school was let out and it’s about time you did and raisins don’t cost that much especially when you pick them up at Rainer’s Fruits and Vegetables and then you’re on the bike trail and you see some early morning joggers off on the runner’s path—

(I should probably do some running one of these days, bring my iPod and go on a Marvin Gaye marathon, it’s been way too long)

—then the joggers are out of sight and all you can see is the sinuous, winding trail, each twist hiding yet another twist and then another one and another one, and who knows what could be behind the next one, and the only way you can find out is to keep pumping and that’s exactly what you do, and you pedal and pedal and pedal, trying to forget the unhappiness and the yellow paint and starry nights—

(if this were a starry night, I would probably be happier so yes, yellow paint could help)

—until you turn another corner and see the stone bench you always stop and sit at for a few minutes and listen to a song or two, except there’s someone there, and it’s this guy who’s maybe your age, and he’s reading a book and he’s got hair that’s as red as the birch tree leaves you saw earlier, and you sort of want to keep on going because you can’t have your private moment, but then again it’s your bench, and some random guy shouldn’t be able to get you away from it—

(that’s the attitude I always need to have, more assertive and all that, yeah)

—so you brake, hard, and rubber squeals and there’s a black skid that’s nearly a foot long, and you don’t care because you’re breathing heavy and it’s just a skid mark and then you sit at the opposite end of the bench as far away as possible from Redhead, and you breathe in and out, in and out, until you’re taking small, even breaths, and then Redhead looks up as if he’s just noticed you for the first time, and he quirks his face into this weird expression—

(I wonder if he’s smiling or frowning or if he’s surprised or what, he’s got the strangest facial expression I don’t even know how to discern it, weird)

—and then he says hi, and you blink once and say hi back, and he gestures to his book and says something about how poetry can’t really do anything strictly useful, and you don’t want to offend him since you don’t know what he means, so you just sort of bob your head in what you hope is a non-idiotic manner and vocalize your assent—

(poetry’s not useful, I don’t think anything’s useful, if something were useful then it would get me out of this prison, the prison of life I’m in, that would be useful)

—and then he goes right on talking to you, a perfect stranger, and says some more stuff about how maybe the only good thing that poetry is worth besides self-reflection is making life just a little more bearable, and ::perhaps you’d like to take a look at this, friend?:: but you sort of shake your head and grin like a moron—

(my life is not bearable)

—yet he pushes the book in your direction, with this dorky little grin on his face, and ::go ahead, I think you’ll like it,:: and maybe it’s because he called you friend, or because he looks so honest and sincere and real, but you take the book, and your eyes flit across the page and land on a random poetry and it’s like a mini-volcano’s erupted inside of you, spitting out all these locked-up emotions you have, and now they’re bubbling and gushing and gurgling, and it’s the strangest combination of the feels you’ve ever had, ever—

(it’s not like I thought it would be, it’s not like the yellow paint or getting the happiness, not so physical, something more, I think)

—so you don’t even try to figure out if it’s the rhythm and lilting cadence of the words, or if it’s the subject and theme that you connect with, but you let it wash over you and inundate you with this inexplicable sensation that does indeed, somehow, strangely enough, make it all just that much easier, and as you look at the poetry in front of you, you can’t help but wonder for an instant if maybe Billy Pilgrim’s Tralfamadorians were up to something when they went on about how their literature, and that it’s not so much the individual words and sentences, but everything lumped together and viewed all at once—

(sure, it’s impossible, but does it really have to be, because this looks like it, I think, maybe?)

—and you look at it all together, and for the most infinitesimal of all moments, everything is beautiful and surprising, and impossibly deep and grand and glorious and yellow and alive and—and—and—

—you wonder if maybe the prison has just become that much more bearable

.

Switch (Part 2)

Part 1 of “Switch” can be found here.

8

Little Mary came along a few years later in the middle of winter. They had just moved to New York. Mary was born on the day before Christmas Eve, on a night when a group of men in New York would meet and listen to the story of a woman determined to give birth no matter what. While Jane and Dick weren’t quite as desperate as this Jane Smith was, it was no small feat to bring their first and only child into the world.
Things had looked up after that, they really had. Jane’s mercurial temper melted away and there was nothing but a mutual love for their new child.
But by the time Mary was three, it started all over again. The accusations. The denials. Strained, artificial conversations as a pretense to keep Mary at peace. It wore at Dick, threatened to slowly consume him away until he was no longer among the living.
He was starting to think that might not be such a bad thing anymore.

9

Dick and Jane were divorced on June 5, 1976.

10

Not to his surprise, Dick was able to get custody of Mary. Jane had become undone, a mere shadow of the woman he’d once fallen in love with. The doctors and psychiatrists spouted off some medical jargon, but he didn’t care. The long and short of it was this: she was insane.
Any woman who tried to saw off her husband’s throat with a butcher’s knife had to be crazy.

11

Jane was institutionalized August 1, 1976.

12

Life moved on. It always did. Dick and Mary moved to a smaller, lower-maintenance house, where they picked up the pieces of their shattered lives and moved on as best as they could. If there was one thing Dick could be grateful for, it was that no matter how much of a monster Jane had been towards him, she’d been a veritable angel with her daughter. There would be no emotional baggage for this precocious child to carry. Sure, he’d have to explain everything, but it could always have been worse.
On March 13, 1979, Dick dropped Mary off at Ellen Bowles’s house. It was Ellen’s daughter’s birthday, and Mary had been invited two weeks ago to the party. There were supposed to be clowns, magic tricks, endless cake and ice cream—the works. Dick figured he’d be able to finish that Bradbury novel when she was out, maybe even do some work on that table he’d been attempting to build for the last year or so. A quiet afternoon would do him some good.
He unlocked the door and stepped into the house. A faint, overripe smell wafted into his nostrils. Was there some fruit that was going bad? Or something else?
Preoccupied with getting to his book, Dick shrugged the matter away and went into the living room.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.

13

He made himself a cup of strong coffee and headed over to the couch, book in hand. But first, he switched on the TV. You never knew what could be on.
On the action news, there was a news alert: some patients had broken out of the city’s mental institution. They’d escaped when the nurses were rotating shifts. There had been a fatality, too. One of the guards had been stabbed multiple times. Two of the patients had been captured, but one was still on the large.
No names were given; no photos were shown.
There was no need to.
The body splash told him everything.

14

She had returned. God help him, she was back.

15

“Darling.”
His hands shot up to his neck.
She chuckled. “Missed me?”
“Not really, no,” he managed. He shook over, reliving the nightmare. The blade was against his throat, breaking skin, drawing blood. She was laughing, laughing, laughing; he was screaming and screaming.
“Shame,” she said, her voice devoid of any emotion.
He couldn’t go through the front door. He’d locked the door and the key was in the kitchen. He’d have a better chance going down the hall and to his room. Out the window.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?”
He swallowed. Exhaled. He still hadn’t stopped shaking, but he reached over. Curled his fingers around it. Stood up.
And threw the cup of steaming coffee in Jane’s face.
Hot, black liquid splattered all over her face, followed by a crashing sound. She screamed, her hands flying to her face. She was holding a knife.
Dick was already running towards his room, his heart lodged in his throat and hammering an erratic tattoo. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. All that mattered was getting out.
Jane roared, a primal sound that sent shivers racing up and down his spine. “I’ll kill you!”
The window was closed. There was no time. Why on earth hadn’t he left the stupid window open? Why?!
She was right behind him, screaming bloody murder. Hardly thinking, he dove for the walk-in closet, slamming it shut behind him and locking it from the inside. He was plunged into absolute darkness, but at least he was away from Jane.
For now.
She pounded at the door. Dick shook like an aspen leaf. He was not what you’d call a crying man, but there he was, sobbing uncontrollably. He was terrified. So terrified. This was it. This was how it ended.
“Oh, God,” he moaned. “Help me. Please.”
Then it was silent. Dick’s breath hitched. Sixty seconds passed. He inched forward, one halting step at a time. Maybe he could look out through the latch and see what was going on. Maybe he’d be able to get out of here and get Mary and move away to another country, somewhere where they’d never hear of Jane again. Maybe…
Wood splintered. A knife shot through the wood, quivering as it came to a stop not six inches away from Dick’s chest. It pulled out. Then splintered through again.
In. Out. In. Out. Jane began to hum an eerie tune.
Then the darkness overtook Dick. It would be the final darkness.

Switch (Part 1)

1

It was the body splash Jane always used to wear that tipped Dick off. A fruity flavor he couldn’t quite place. Probably a berry. Maybe strawberry. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t been able to place it as soon as he’d come in. How stupid of him.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
And even now, as he sat there, listening to her muffled, whispery footfalls as she came down the stairs, he was unable to move, frozen stiff with that sickening sense of fear that inundated him. It’d been so long, Dick thought he’d never know what it felt like to lose all control of himself again.
Or did he? Hadn’t he, on some subconscious level, waited long for this day? Wasn’t this just the self-fulfillment of a pathetic, almost sadistic dream of his?
Of course it was. Of course it was.
He was still facing the TV. Her footsteps had ceased. But he knew. Oh, he knew. She was right there.
His stomach clenched. The hairs on the nape of his neck stood up.
And then.
“Darling.”

2

Dick had first met Jane back when he’d been working at a diner out in the middle of South Dakota. It was in the mid-60s, when the Beat Generation was giving way to what would soon be known as the hippie movement; Eisenhower was president, bell-bottomed pants and long hair flourished, and a definite undercurrent of hopeful optimism crackled through the air like electricity. Everything was grand and glorious and . . . well, alive. If there was ever a time in humanity that Dick could have chosen to live in, it would’ve been right there and then.
When he first saw Jane, she was wearing a pretty floral print dress with a bright yellow flower in her hair. There had been something instantly captivating about her. He wasn’t sure if it was her carefree, confident stride; or maybe the mesmerizing cadence of her words as she placed an order of coffee with toast and eggs. It didn’t matter.
He was smitten.

3

It wasn’t until she’d been a regular for two months and fourteen days that Dick managed to speak to her and asked her if she’d want to go and get some ice cream when he got off work.
“Why Dick,” she said, “that would be lovely.”

4

They had many long talks after that. Below the stars, behind the moribund community center where the town had once held a monthly dance, anywhere. It was here that they grew close. He told her everything about him. There wasn’t much that made for good conversation, he thought. She didn’t think so. She asked all about his life and what he’d done before he came here to South Dakota, and about his friends, and his three-legged dog, and the poetry he composed after being inspired by Kerouac and Burroughs and all those geniuses.
He didn’t have to belong to the incipient hippie movement. He didn’t have to be an intellectual, or rich, or one of the liberals. He was who he was. She accepted him.
He loved her for that.

5

“Let’s get married,” Dick said one August evening when they were sitting on the back porch of the apartment he lived at. They were eating a slice of Mrs. McCurty’s rich apple pie with a creamy scoop of vanilla ice cream. The air was silky, the crickets were singing; it was one of those moments Dick wished could be frozen forever and preserved.
“Honestly?” she said.
“Honestly,” he said.
She took the last bite of her pie. “Let’s.”

6

They were married at St. Andrew’s on September 12, 1968.

8

Jane had always had something of a short-fused temper, but nothing out of the ordinary. Not at first, at least. It would be little things, like whose turn it was to do the dishes—none of that “women must do all the housework” here, thank you very much—or what TV show they should watch tonight. She’d normally get snippy, not talk to him for a few hours, but he hadn’t been too concerned. That was marriage, right? It wasn’t all roses, right?
But it wasn’t supposed to be like this, either.
Eventually, things got worse. She became paranoid, convinced that Dick was carrying on an affair or three with one of the gals at work. She raged for hours on end, and more than once things had gotten physical. He didn’t want to hurt her—his own dad had been an abusive monster; Dick had no intentions of going down that road—so he ended up taking most of the blows. He didn’t even know why he suffered them silently, knowing full well that he’d be able to take her down with a one-two to the face. But he wouldn’t. He couldn’t.
After it was over, she’d always apologize. He’d always accept. Love her. Hope things would get better.
Then they’d happen again.

To be continued.