(Here it is…after thousands of hours of blood, sweat and tears from twelve gifted writers…plus torment from a fire-breathing editor…the latest Twisted Tails IX: Wunderkind. This one is about kids who may seem normal on the surface, but you know something’s going on…somewhere…somehow. My story in this volume is called That Kid.)
There was something strange about that kid. He looked normal. He played computer games and watched TV like any other normal thirteen year old. He talked normally…just like any grade ten student. He wore the same kind of clothes as the kids he hung with. He didn’t have any tattoos or piercings. He was a slightly above average student, but nothing spectacular. It was certain to see that, even at thirteen with all that youthful potential ahead, this kid wasn’t going to discover a cure for cancer or win any gold medals.
There were no demonic glints in his eyes.
But Justin knew there was something not quite right about that kid. He wasn’t sure if the other kids felt the same way, but he was sure that, if they did, they weren’t saying anything. Just like him.
Why was that?
He’d known since the beginning of the school year, when Chris Shaw transferred into Carman High, there was something odd about him, but he could never put his finger on what it was. When the kid wasn’t around, he never thought about it. When he was around, it was all that occupied his thoughts. Fortunately, he was two grades ahead of the kid, so the only times he saw him were occasionally in the cafeteria, the playground or the gym during assemblies. But even that was too much. It made him feel uncomfortable, but when the thought occurred to him to mention it to any of his friends, he didn’t.
He just didn’t.
Why was that?
There he was now, standing by the skateboard park, talking to five other kids. The other kids all seemed normal, loose pants, hoodies flopping over their backs and unlaced boarding shoes. Chris Shaw was dressed the same and he looked the same but for some reason, he wasn’t the same. He was different. Justin wondered if the kids Chris was talking to felt the same way. Were they thinking, “What is it about him?” Did they have that same unsettled feeling under the surface of their thoughts?
His blue eyes twinkled as he laughed at something one of the other kids said. He looked relaxed like they all did. There was no teen angst visible in his expression. He stooped slightly, but they all did. It was a relaxed, feeling-no-threat-from-anything-in-the-world stoop.
But there was something really odd about him.
He turned to his friend, Barry, and was about to say, “See that kid over there?” as he pointed to Chris Shaw but, just as he was about to speak, Barry grabbed his arm and said, “There’s Marie and Sandy. This is your chance, Justin. Marie just broke up with Sean.” He practically dragged Justin toward the two girls sitting on the railing by the swings.
As they passed Karl Lambert, Justin noticed a quizzical look in his eyes. He looked in the direction that Karl was looking and there was Chris Shaw.
“Hey Sandy! Marie!” called Barry.
There was something not quite definable about that kid. Cassie Hanson never felt comfortable around him, though she would never show it, or even mention it to anyone. He seemed normal in every aspect she could identify─his looks, his speech, his behavior─everything about him was normal. But there was still…something else.
She could feel it as he spoke.
“I’m open for any suggestions,” he said. He had a warm smile and he seemed to take everything─even the most serious of things─with a grain of salt. Nothing seemed to get on his nerves and he always seemed to be in a pleasant mood. He did show a little stress when he had to get up to read aloud in English class, but so did most of the students. Maybe that was it. Maybe he was too normal. Maybe he was strange by his lack of strangeness. Didn’t everyone have their own little quirks? Their personal eccentricities? Wanda Cummings chewed her nails till her fingertips bled. Shirley Jacobs’ mouth twitched every time someone mentioned anything to do with being overweight. She weighed seventy-two pounds. The other girls hated her. Jamie French lost his temper easily on those days when he didn’t sleep well the night before, which was most days. Derek Smith laughed too much and too loud. And his jokes sucked.
But Cassie couldn’t think of anything that made Chris Shaw different from the other kids. Especially in a way that would make her feel uncomfortable around him. Strange that she didn’t feel this way when he wasn’t around. In fact, she never even thought of him when he wasn’t in sight. At least she didn’t think so.
“Let’s do some laser games at the West Mall,” said Derek. He punctuated the sentence with an abrupt laugh, as though going to the West Mall hinted at some inherent humor. Maybe in his head. “We haven’t done that in months.”
For just an instant, Cassie felt a sense of enthusiasm from the other kids. The feeling was gone almost as soon as she sensed it.
“How about the movies?” piped in Wanda. “The new Transformers movie. Great FX.”
Without any hesitation, thought or reflection, the others nodded agreement. Including Cassie. But she really didn’t have any preference over either the mall or the movies. The thought did cross her mind, though, that they’d been going to the movies a lot. They hadn’t hung at the mall since September.
And what was this weird feeling about Chris? He was in their group. A friend. Why couldn’t she feel comfortable around him? He didn’t even give his preference between the mall and the movies. He was that innocuous…he didn’t try to sway anyone’s opinion or disagree with anyone. She’d been meaning to mention this to somebody else in the group, but she knew that she’d feel…and probably look…like an idiot. It was Chris. Sweet, innocent Chris. But then she seemed to recall hearing a lot of good things about the new Transformers movie.
Jason Thurnheer stared from under the shelter of one of the many sun shelters that the school had been forced to buy to protect the kids from harmful rays from the sun. Kids had been playing outside under the harmful rays from the sun for thousands of years. Suddenly, the sun was going to kill them and several thousands of dollars from the District’s already strapped funds had to be spent on metal poles with fibreglass umbrella-like tops to protect the kids from harmful UV radiation on their fifteen minute recesses.
At night, kids from around the neighborhood bought drugs under them.
But Jason Thurnheer, history teacher at Carman High, wasn’t thinking about the sun shelters. He was staring at Chris Shaw and wondering what it was about that kid. It was stupid. He knew that. Shaw was just about the most normal kid he’d ever had in his Grade 10 history class. He rarely showed up with his homework unfinished. Assignments always on time. Mostly Bs on tests. A couple of As. He’d never been sick or missed a class for any other reason and he was always on time. He got along fine with the other students.
So what was it?
Jason couldn’t recall any time when the kid had been in any kind of altercation with any of the other students. The trouble-makers, the bullies, the drug dealers, the lost sheep…none of them ever seemed to bother with Chris Shaw. And it didn’t seem that they went out of their way to avoid him. They weren’t afraid of him and had no reason to fear any kind of blowback if they tangled with him. The kids he hung around with weren’t the kind to form a vigilante group to go after anyone who messed with one of theirs. There was nothing protecting Chris Shaw, but it was like he had some kind of shield around him wherever he went. A shield that warded off anything that could cause things to go wrong.
Jason had been meaning to talk to Karl about this. Karl had the kid in this math class. But he never seemed to get around to it. He would just be on the verge of saying something and suddenly, he would think of something else, something urgent that couldn’t wait to be spoken. Or something would happen. Someone would come along at that moment and take his mind off Chris Shaw.
So Jason had never had a chance to ask anyone else if he was crazy, or was there something about Chris Shaw that was…? What? Different? Not right? Harmful to the environment? It was stupid.
Two kids, each with about a pound of metal hanging from facial piercings, starting pushing each other a little too hard to be friendly jostling. Jason left the sun shelter and made his way toward the two kids, thinking, “What now?”
“That movie was awesome!” said Chris. Blue eyes flashing. “We should go to the Fox.”
The Fox was a restaurant a couple of blocks from the theatre. It was where they always went after watching a movie. Always. The routine never changed, even though suggestions were sometimes made about going somewhere else, like to one of the other kid’s houses or maybe another restaurant. It was always the Fox. Cassie wondered about this. Why didn’t they ever go anywhere else? She was about to make a suggestion that they go her place and play some music in the basement rec room. They’d done that before. Once maybe? She couldn’t remember. At least not since Chris had started hanging around with them. And she really couldn’t remember when they’d gone to her place before he’d started hanging with them.
She was about to suggest her place when she caught Chris’s eyes. He was smiling so warmly. What a great kid he was. But what was it about him? “Yeah, let’s go to the Fox,” she said. Why had she said that? Why did it feel wrong? What was she thinking about before she’d opened her mouth? She knew she’d been thinking about something else. What was it?
“You know what we should do?” said Jamie.
All eyes turned to Jamie. He was smiling. Jamie smiling. Not morose or angry or touchy. Must have gotten a full night’s sleep. He started to say something. But stopped. There as a sudden flash of confusion in his eyes. The corners of his mouth seemed to sloop. Like a defeated smile. A shadowy darkness drifted across his eyes. He started again to say something, stopped and started again. His face slumped. It slumped. That was the only way Cassie could describe it. His face slumped. Like something defeated. He looked like he was trying to remember something. His lips moved and he said, “Yeah, let’s go to the Fox.”
This had all happened in just a few seconds.
Chris smiled. There was something about the smile that wasn’t right. It was like he was just agreeing with Jamie’s agreement with him. An acknowledgement. No…it wasn’t any of that…it was approval. Approval.
Derek laughed. Too loud as usual. Sometimes it was annoying. But everyone laughed along with him. As though his irritating laugh was the on button for all of them to laugh.
Jason Turner sat in the living room staring at the plasma screen, not seeing the images of war, crime, accidents, disasters, catastrophes, disease and corruption playing out on the news like a reality show for the apocalypse. There was something he wanted to say. His wife sat on the couch next to him. She was talking about something, but Jason wasn`t hearing it. What was it he wanted to say, something important. He wanted to talk to his wife, run something by her. Something that had been on his mind for some time now.
Something important. He knew it was important. Why couldn`t he remember it? This wasn`t like him. His memory never failed him, especially when it came to important things. And this was important. Possibly urgent. He could feel the urgency in his stomach like something heavy and indigestible. It was right there at the tip of his tongue eager to get out, to reveal itself. But it was stuck somewhere. Where?
It was something that had been on his mind for quite some time now, something that he’d been wondering about, puzzling about. Yes, that was it…puzzling about. There was a puzzle in his life and if he could just remember what it was, he could talk to Emma and she would make it all go away. The puzzle would be solved and his mind would be at ease.
He could hear her voice out there, somewhere. If he could just talk to her. But he couldn’t even look at her. All he could do was stare at a screen that played nothing he could grasp.
What the hell was wrong with him?
Justin saw them coming through the door at the Fox. Chris Shaw and his friends. Justin was sitting with Barry, Sandy and Marie. Marie had a faraway look. Justin was sure she was still stuck on Sean. They’d been going together since middle school. They’d broken up a few times but they always got back together after a week or two. Justin wasn’t going to be getting anything tonight. Not even a good night kiss. Definitely not a good night feel.
Barry and Sandy were deep into it. Cuddling up to each other, laughing too loud, pushing their bodies together in the bench stall so hard it was amazing they didn’t burst into flames like two sticks rubbed together.
Justin looked at Chris Shaw, so normal looking, so calm, so fucking odd. He was about to mention this to Barry when Sandy planted a long wet one on Barry’s lips. Justin waited. And waited. They had to come up for oxygen sometime soon. Finally they did. Justin started to talk at about the same time that Marie burst into tears.
“That bastard!” she said loud enough to draw eyes from the nearby stalls.
Barry had that look in his eyes…oh no, not again. Sandy reached across the table and put her hand on Marie’s arm. “Marie…just forget about him. He’s not worth it.” This made Marie cry even harder. “He could have called,” Sandy whimpered. “He could have at least called. I waited and waited. He could have called.” She sneezed loudly, pulled a tissue from her purse, blew her nose, wiped her eyes and started to cry again.
Justin was beginning to feel embarrassed. He just wanted this evening to be over. He looked at Marie, streams of tears on her cheeks, eyes puffed, chest heaving.
Suddenly her face went blank. She looked interested in something and then confused. She opened her mouth to say something, changed her mind and said nothing. Barry and Sandy were back at trying to burst into flames. Marie breathed deeply and let the air out slowly. She looked confused and disoriented. Justin followed her eyes.
She was looking at Chris Shaw.
Karl Lambert was a logical man. He taught math for Christ’s sake…and it doesn’t get any more logical than that. But there was something wrong and he couldn’t define it with numbers and theorems. He couldn’t define it with words. Words like “if this, then that” and “If Jack has three apples…”
But he could feel it, like a mathematically impossible connectedness. Its shape was something organic, but transcendent. Something that would vanish the moment you touched it.
He stroked his son`s hair. Jimmy liked that. It put him to sleep. Made him feel relaxed and loose as he sunk into the big blue pillow and the coordinated blankets. He was asleep now, eyes closed, face relaxed, breathing the heavy-light rhythm of sleep. But Karl kept stroking his forehead. This was for Karl, something to relax the heaviness that tainted his thoughts lately.
Why couldn`t he define it? It was all around him. All through him. In his mind and body. Something that didn’t make any sense to his logical mind. Something impossible but tangibly present until he looked too closely, and then it fled to the peripheries of his vision, somewhere where mathematics didn’t make any sense, where ghosts and goblins were the norm.
Ghosts and goblins? He must be going crazy.
A thought occurred to him. He lowered his head to his son’s ear and started to whisper something. But the words died before they could slip off his tongue.
And he had a feeling that something very much like this had happened before.
Cassie watched as Wanda chewed her nails furiously and wondered why she never got infections. She remembered times when Wanda’s fingers were bleeding because she’d bitten them down to the skin. Tonight she had the nails on her left hand chewed that far and she was working on the index finger of her right hand. When she’d chewed the nails completely off both hands, she would chew some more…until they started to bleed. This was going to be one of those nights. She could feel it. A slight unease crept just under the surface of the night.
Something was up with Wanda and Cassie wanted to ask what, but for some reason she couldn’t get the words out of her mouth. What was with that?
Shirley stared at her salad, hardly touched. She wouldn’t finish it. She never did. Maybe half and then she would just stare at it, like she was doing now, and feel like she was fat because she’d eaten the first half.
Derek was suddenly silent. That was odd. He was usually at his most boisterous at the Fox and he’d been telling jokes and laughing all the way to the Fox. And now he was quiet.
It was like someone had switched channels on the night. They were sitting at one of the corner round tables. The walls were lined with wooden benches and wooden tables. It was retro right down to the fake juke boxes at each table that opened to reveal mustard and ketchup.
A commotion broke out at the other end of the room where the Blade brothers sat with four of their friends. They were like a gang without a name. They were always hanging together in the schoolyard and after school. Everybody stayed away from them. They were big and tough and got into a lot of fights. Everyone of them had been expelled from school at least once. Kirby Blade was talking really loud and the others were trying to calm him down. But he pushed himself out of the table stall and stood up. His brother, Bobby Blade told him to just forget it. The others agreed.
“Just let it alone.”
“He ain’t worth it.”
“You’re just gonna…”
But he just told them to fuck off and turned around so fast he lost his balance for a second. His eyes flashed angrily to their table and settled on Chris. There was just one way to describe the look in Kirby’s eyes: murderous.
There was going to be trouble.
Kirby was big, about two hundred and twenty pounds. And he was the meanest of the group. He tromped over to their table, hands down by his side like something horrible rising from the grave. Everyone in the Fox watched him. He stopped right in front of their table and looked Chris right in the eyes. His mouth twitched and opened and closed and twitched again. Chris sat calmly and just looked at Kirby. The entire room went deathly quiet. Kirby’s eyes bored into Chris’s, his mouth still twitching, eyes filled with murder.
And suddenly, his shoulders slumped. It was like the deflation of a balloon. All the mass simply evaporated. He looked confused. He started to say something, but stopped. He turned and walked away, back to his table and sat down with a blank look in his eyes as though he’d forgotten something.
Like a switch had been turned everybody started talking and laughing as though nothing had happened. A cloud surrounded Jamie’s face. Derek started laughing. Cassie started to say something, stopped for a second and said, “Wasn’t that a great movie?”
Chris smiled as though satisfied with everything.
Everybody was fine. There seemed to be an almost exaggerated sense of joviality at the Fox, but Justin just wanted to get out of the place. Marie was dragging him down with her pathetic obsession with Sean. She wasn’t in tears anymore and she seemed to be trying to have a good time, but it was there just under the surface of her smile, hidden in the corners of her mouth. There was an incongruity between the smile on her face and the emptiness in her eyes.
Justin just wanted to go home and follow tweets into the night. Anything would be better than this.
He had a sense that something was about to happen, or was happening, or had already happened. There was a tension in the air, under the joviality. What was it? Why did everybody in here seem so happy? Even the Blade brothers and their asshole friends were laughing and punching each other in the arms playfully. Now, that was really weird. In fact, it was downright sickening.
It shouldn’t have been happening.
That wasn’t the Blade brothers. Those weren’t their friends. It was like they’d been swallowed by pods and transformed into alien creatures. Pod people. But they were joking and having fun. Pod people didn’t do that.
And the Blade brothers didn’t either.
After a period of whispering and giggling, Barry and Sandie said they were going to Sandie’s house to play some video games. Yeah, sure. Any video involved there would be porn downloaded from the internet. But there wouldn’t be any video. They’d be in the basement rec room making out.
Justin felt deserted. He was stuck alone with Marie and her broken heart. He offered to drive her home and she said that would be great.
As the four of them left the Fox, Justin glanced over at Chris Shaw and his friends, all of them laughing, joking, so animated. But there was a rhythm to their animation that chilled Justin. It was the same movement, a swaying motion that moved them all at the same time.
All of them but Chris Shaw, who sat still as a Buddha, while everyone in the room seemed to move with one motion. Justin felt that chill again.
It was one of those slate grey days when everything seems clear through the lack of distracting details. Colors were suppressed and an unusual quiet suffused the air.
Chris Shaw and his friends hung out in their usual place in the school yard. They talked about games and movies and other small stuff. Cassie Hanson didn’t feel right. There was something missing but she couldn’t put her finger on it. It was right there under the surface of the small talk, hiding behind the plainness of the conversation. What was it? What were they all avoiding. That was it…they were avoiding something, talking around whatever it was they should be saying.
Cassie knew this. They weren’t doing what they should be doing. They were avoiding it. This realization slithered through her mind like something bending blades of grass in the night. This was a vivid feeling, something concrete, more solid than any of the thoughts she’d been having lately. There was truth here and this time she wasn’t going to let go of it. Yes, that was it…every time she’d had a feeling like this, something had happened to distract her, or she’d just changed her track of thought, forgot whatever it was that…disturbed her. That was it. Something had been disturbing her, not in the sense of irritation or creepiness…more like a sense of things not quite fitting together. A disjointedness that surrounded not just her, but everybody in the schoolyard, everybody at the Fox on the weekend. It was there when she was at home, in class, alone in the rec room, in the shower. And it was with everyone else as well. She could see it in Wanda’s eyes as she smiled and talked about something they would all forget five minutes from now. There was no smile in her eyes. Jamie listened to her, but he wasn’t really hearing anything Wanda said because she wasn’t really saying anything.
That was it. Cassie knew that she was getting close to something important and she knew that she had to force herself to keep on this track and not be distracted. But…distracted from what? What was it that kept leading her away from whatever it was that she wanted to know? Needed to know? She caught Chris’s eyes looking straight into her eyes and he looked worried. He’d just been laughing. Why was he suddenly worried?
She had a sudden sense of being on to something, of being close to something essential and, whatever it was, it had everything to do with Chris Shaw. And she knew that he could see it in her eyes and he didn’t like it. Derek laughed loudly, too loudly. The laughter seemed to be aimed directly at Cassie. As thought Derek were trying to distract her, trying to get his laughter into her head and derail her train of thought. She looked away from Derek and tried desperately to hang onto…what was it? Something essential…something…she looked into Chris’s eyes again. The worry in his eyes. In fact, it was looking more like fear. Chris Shaw was afraid of something and it had something to do with her. At this moment, her eyes met Justin’s and she could see in his eyes that same look of revelation that she knew must be showing in her own eyes. They both knew it. There was something about Chris, something that had been going on since he’d moved to the neighborhood.
It suddenly dawned on her. They’d always gone to the other kids’ places, never to Chris’s. She didn’t even know where he lived or even his phone number. Everything about him when she wasn’t around him was an unknown.
She walked across the schoolyard to talk to Justin.
Karl Lambert and Jason Turner watched quietly as kids milled around the schoolyard. Neither had spoken for several minutes when Jason blurted out, “You ever notice anything strange about Chris Shaw?”
Karl thought for a moment and remembered. Yes, Chris Shaw was odd. And he’d wanted to talk about it ever since the kid’s first day of school. But somehow, he couldn’t do it, like there was some kind of switch inside him that moved to the off position just as he was about to talk. What bothered him the most though was who was turning the switch. And now he was having some very clear thoughts about that.
“Yes, I’ve felt there was something weird about him ever since he got here, but every time I tried to mention it to anyone, something would happen, someone would say something to change my train of thought. Or, I’d just forget. It was like…”
They both looked in Chris’s direction just as he looked at them. Karl and Jason saw it immediately…the kid’s eyes burned with terror and he looked almost like he was getting wavy.
There was a shift in the entire yard. It was as though it was one place one moment and another place the next. I was almost a physical sense of change of location. In that instant, Karl and Jason both saw it, no matter how unbelievable it seemed…they’d seen it. It was as though the entire school yard moved to the same pattern, as though the there was nothing random about the movement of the people even though there seemed to be random movements, but they were repeated in various places in the yard and their deliberateness was so apparent in the shift to something different.
Justin felt it immediately. It was like a release, a blink into somewhere else. He looked at Chris and felt a chill as the boy almost seemed to warp, his body wavering and…what was that? Seeming to become translucent, and then solid, and then translucent. Each time Chris moved into transparency, Justin felt just a bit less tugged at. He couldn’t understand this. What was this feeling now, emanating from Chris Shaw?
Suddenly, Cassie Hanson was in front of him. “Can you feel that?” she said.
“Yeah, weird, isn’t it? And it all seems to be coming from Chris.”
“You can talk about Chris?”
Justin felt a jolt in his stomach. “Yeah…yeah, I can. I’ve been trying to do that ever since he came here, but I couldn’t. Something would always happen to stop me.”
“Me too, “ said Cassie.
“But how is that possible?”
“I don’t know, but I do know that something very unusual has been going on since he moved here,” said Cassie, and she suddenly remembered her earlier thought. “And where does he live? I’ve been to everybody else’s place but I’ve never been to Chris’s place. It’s like he just appears out of nowhere and then goes back to nowhere when he’s not with us.”
They both looked at Chris. “Do you see that?” said Cassie.
“Yeah, it’s like he’s fading away and then coming back and then fading. What the hell…”
Suddenly Kirby Blade was in front of Chris, fury in his eyes.
“What the fuck are you?” he screamed, “You’ve been controlling us ever since you got here!” He was almost nose-to-nose with Kirby, face red with rage, fists clenched, eyes bulging. “You’ve been controlling our minds, making us all do and say shit we don’t want. But we’re on to you now, you little fuck! We’re…”
“Yes, Kirby. That’s right…I’ve been controlling you…all of you.” He stared around at the other kids and the teachers, who had all stopped what they were doing and were looking at Chris. He looked sad as his eyes met theirs. Everyone was still as though frozen in time. Chris looked into Kirby’s eyes, from which the rage had disappeared, replaced by a look of confusion, maybe even fear. “But not since I got here, Kirby.” The sadness radiated from his eyes and spread over his face. “Since you got here.”
“What the fuck are you talking about!”
“The program I wrote to create all of you. It’s embedded in my brain…where I can keep all of you alive for…well…for as long as my brain functions. I was close to giving you free will, but I couldn’t let you know what you were…there would have been no free will in that.”
“I said…what the fuck are you talking about!” yelled Kirby through quivering lips.
“You had to stop being aware of me, of suspecting me. You had to put me out of your mind. And I’m so sorry that I failed you in that. Maybe I’ll get it right in the next version.”
Suddenly, Kirby Blade blinked out, followed by Justin, Karl, Jason and everybody else in the schoolyard. The last one to disappear was Cassie Hanson…the look of sadness in her face, a projection of Chris’s own sadness.