At the bell, I head to study hall, my last class. There's a substitute today. Cell phones come out. Someone has their iPod up way too high. In a way, I feel sorry for the sub; as a job, it has to be right up there with garbage collector. I prop a book between me and my backpack then close my eyes, which have been slamming shut all day.
The next thing I know, the substitute is standing over me, his hand on my shoulder, shaking me awake. Someone sniggers nearby.
“Wake up, young man. There's no sleeping in study hall.”
Pushing my glasses back into place, I look up and try to get my eyes to adjust and stay open; I blink a few times and look around wildly. What an idiot. I even forgot where I was for a moment. A flush of warmth starts at my ears and neck before sliding across my cheeks.
“All right, I'm up.”
Whispers erupt in various places around me as I sit up and rub my eyes. Someone laughs. My desk is askew. Something smells bad. Sulfur. Odd… the realization hits me hard.
A female voice remarks, “If I were him, I'd be totally embarrassed!”
“What's your name?” the substitute asks quietly.
The substitute leans down. “Joel? You might want to speak with a counselor about those dreams.”
“What do you mean?”
He leans closer, lowers his voice. “You kept saying, ‘get off me, stop touching me, get off me,' over and over.”
He gives me what he must think is a reassuring smile. Then he leaves.
The only thing worse than getting caught asleep in study hall: getting caught asleep and crying out from a bad dream in study hall.
There's more whispering, but this time it crackles nearby. A recording—presumably of me—replays the sound of me jerking around in my chair, desk legs scraping against the floor, then “Get OFF me!” and “Stop TOUCHING meeee!”
The bell rings.
Down the hallway, students gather in odd clumps, skittering away from me like I'm the monster. A cacophony of whispers follows a chorus of aborted cackles; I hear my voice playing over and over, like my life jammed on repeat. I'm too stunned to reply, even when Shampoo Girl, who rides my bus, tries to stop me. I'm not good with names. We move too much for them to matter. This girl is heavyset, plain, with nice hair. I like how it smells if I sit behind her on the bus. Shampoo Girl. She's one of the few I've caught glaring at my attackers when I'm dropped into the lunchroom trashcan or tripped with an armful of books between classes. She hasn't said anything to my attackers, like that punk from Algebra II, but her quiet defiance is at least reassuring. Not that I've thanked her or acknowledged her for that.
“Joel? Joel, are you okay?” I definitely don't deserve her sympathy; instead, I look back down the hall.
My own brother Jonathan is with his swim team posse and says, “I can't believe you dudes got this,” before he sees me.
“Izzat rilly yer bro, man?” asks a blond-haired skater-punk friend of Jonathan's, pointing at his cellphone. They must be watching the video of me from study hall just like everyone else. Man, that traveled fast. On the far end, cackling like a fiend, my brother Jonathan laughs at his best friend Elias’ reaction, who is doubled over and turning purple. Skaterdude is on this end, sputtering and waving his arms like he’s imitating me from the video. Between the other two is Elias. God, I hate him sometimes. Why does he stick his nose where it doesn't belong?
“You still owe me a fiver for the Terror Bet,” Jonathan says, slapping the back of his hand on Skaterdude's chest. He should've kept our energy drink bet private, between the two of us, but instead I imagine he thought he'd impress his posse and make a few bucks. So he bet off me, did he? Jonathan looks up and sees me staring right at him. He tosses up two fingers after bouncing them off his chest like a salute to his homies, although I'm clearly not one of them. I'm just his loser brother.
It doesn't matter.
He's right. Jonathan must think of me as another one of his casualties just like him. I'm a cast-off, like Terror Man, my mother's latest boyfriend. To Jonathan, Terror Man and I are just accessories on his social status climb. Even after our most recent beating for touching the shrine of Terrors, Jonathan dared me to try to steal one without getting caught. I thought he was just looking out for me since I haven’t been sleeping much, but I guess I was wrong. If I can't tell the difference between someone being nice or using me, I wonder how I will ever fix things with Amber Walker, the only girl I've ever wished was more than friends.
No turning back now. My social life is officially over. I wonder how long it will take until everyone hears, and probably sees, a cell phone clip of my nightmare.
Only I can't wake up from this one.
I don't plan to collapse on my frameless mattress late that night. By the time I'm fully out.., I'm already drifting down a vaguely familiar set of stone stairs, before I realize the déjà vu—at first a cold tingle then a white-hot shudder that seeps down my spine. As it dissipates, I continue down, despite the thrumming in my ears.
Firelight dapples across shadowed walls near the bottom. Cold air gusts past, chills me until my teeth rattle, and almost blows out the torches. The room opens to the right, but I can't see around the corner.
As I step into the guttering light, I'm knocked on my face so fast I barely get my hands out to break my fall. I gasp for breath beneath this tremendous weight. There's no getting away. Sharp pain bursts along my ribs.
From its grip, I get a twinge in my spine, sharp stings that shoot up my back and spread out across both shoulder blades. Whatever is behind me is huge. Its hulking mass presses me down into the ground. I sure as hell don't dare move.
“C'mere, Joel!” the deep voice snarls against my ear.
I wake up.
Sometimes I wake screaming. How does it know my name? My mother has found me a few times that way; about as comforting as getting caught jerking off under blankets.
When she finds me like that, I roll toward the wall and mumble about a bad dream. I'll be fine. Go back to bed. Please don't ask any more. I'll never live this down if my mother holds my hand and chases away some boogeyman. I've got to figure this out. Better to man-up than be labeled a loser. At least Jonathan's still asleep. I don't need him betraying me any further.
If I could, I'd squeeze my eyes shut and will myself back to sleep. What if that thing is there? The stone stairs. The horrible, personal things it says. The sweat-rot stench of sulfur. I'd rather stare at the blurry ceiling all night. Besides, questions begin to swirl, threatening to keep me awake indefinitely. There's at least three hours until it's time to get up for school. I might have a test. Better not think too much.
Next thing I know, it's light; the roof of my mouth is sandpapery, I've got rank morning breath, and, if I don't get to the bathroom right now, I'm going to have a waterbed for sure.
I have to limp my way there, momentarily forgetting about our lecture at the hands of Terror Man last night. I don’t like him. He’s always in our faces. Always trying to prove what a man he is when he slams us against the wall or some shit.
He’s nice enough when he’s not railing on Jonathan and me for drinking his Terrors.
As I find relief in the bathroom, I start to wonder about this latest nightmare. Then I grab a shower, wincing when the tender spots in my back come under the flow. Maybe I should've let Jonathan take the brunt of it all, since he made the bet, but I couldn't live with myself if I hadn't intervened. I thought he was gonna kill Jonathan this time. What a nightmare. Which reminds me: I've got too many memory gaps to make sense of it all. I need to figure out their source. The root cause.
It's not for lack of trying.
I've scoured every book on nightmares I can find. One said the mind is a strange muscle that remembers every ache. Nightmares are a way we revisit each painful experience, circling back to make sense of what happened. That still doesn't explain how the creature knows me well enough to snarl my name. Is it someone I know? I glance at the clock. No time to dwell; the bus'll be here any minute. Time to get dressed and head downstairs.
My mother is at work, and Jonathan went in on the early bus for swim team. I grab breakfast and ibuprofen and then head for the street corner. My hand lands on the last two cans in my backpack. I'd forgotten all about the Terrors. Jonathan. I'd toss them back in the fridge if I weren't already at the bus stop.
Might as well. Chugging the first one down, I collect weird looks as I let the burp rip. Jonathan still got pretty roughed up; after all, he dared swipe from the shrine of Terrors on the top shelf of the fridge. Terror Man left no visible marks on me, only bruises, but I doubt Jonathan made it out unscathed. I wonder what Coach said to him this morning.
Was Jonathan trying to set me up? Guarantee a win for his second round of Terror Bets, so he could up the ante? It's never enough with him. Jonathan can't seem to leave well enough alone. Like he has to poke the bear or something. Everyone knows you let a sleeping bear lie. Not him.
The last stragglers come out as the bus pulls up. I'm the new guy. Technically, it's Redhead-Dude-With-Braces-And-Acne's stop.
I must space out the whole ride to school because it feels like only moments later when the bus pulls into the drop-off circle by the Broad Run High School, Home of the Panthers sign. Cheerleaders brush past in uniform, and the football team is sporting jersey hard-ons, strutting as we all press toward the door.
School's a bust. I doze through most of my classes, but at least I overhear that the history test has been moved to next week. Now I just have to make it through English class (easy for me), study hall, and I'm out.
We're reading this book Fahrenheit 451, where Guy Montag is an anti-fireman who burns books for a living. If I could talk some sense into him, maybe he'd lay off the bonfires and help me sort through all the bizarre shit in my brain. Yeah, it's a crazy thought, just like the ones about Amber.
I get flustered when I think of her.
Maybe Montag and I aren't as different from each other as I first thought. We both have problems we're running from. Beatty hunts him down when they catch Montag hoarding books in his air vent. I knew he was a reader. His own wife turns him in. Betrayed by someone that close. Man.
That's what set him off running.
My English teacher makes us write on the salamander or fire lizard. Is it a tattoo or just a uniform logo? I consider writing a story or a poem. According to legend, they're not lizards, which are reptiles. Salamanders are amphibians and have an affinity for fire. They can also regenerate lost limbs and tails. Remind me of an Escher tessellation. Patterns that transform from one thing to another. I should go for extra credit.
Speaking of extra credit, my grades have been nothing but toilet water, they're so flushed. Up until now, I've held tight at honor roll. But, just like that time in the closet with Amber, it, too, was a test I knew I was doomed to fail. Now I can't shake these nightmares. Neither could Montag.
If I don't do something soon, I'll have to repeat my sophomore year. Then I'd be in the same grade as Jonathan. That's reason enough to invoke my previous plan.
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