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A warm summer breeze blew through the open kitchen window of 17 Stark Avenue. The breeze flipped playfully through the big house, rushing past marble busts of long-deceased relatives and skimming the laurels of each family member, which lined the off-white walls of the immense victorian. Finding its ways through the long hallways, similarly covered with garish paintings whose price tags didn’t quite level with the artistic ability of those who had made them, the rush of air slowed down to a crawl before barely tickling the nose of Gary Zeissman.
The young boy breathed in heavily through his mouth, his little chest rising and his mouth agape before he let loose a huge “Achoo!” and sat straight up in bed. His vision blurry, Gary’s attention snapped towards the window. He threw the silk sheets off and hurried to get his trousers on. Judging by the angle of the sun on his carpet, Gary knew he wouldn’t even need to check the gold and jewel-encrusted grandfather clock downstairs. He already knew he was late.
Hurriedly pulling his loafers on, he grabbed his neatly pressed button-down from its hanger and slid his arms in the sleeves. He stopped. Where were his suspenders? Throwing his arms up, Gary grabbed his jacket and scurried into his bathroom.
Slamming the vanity door shut, Gary’s reflection snapped into view. As he glanced at himself in the mirror, the flurry of thoughts racing through his mind suddenly halted. His face was flushed between his golden-green eyes and his pronounced jawline. Gary was on the small side for his age, and had a physique that showed off what little muscle he had simply due to the fact that he had almost zero body fat. Gary knew he was a weakling; he had come to accept the fact. He splashed cold water on his cheeks, which still had a bit of baby fat in them, before raking a comb through his straight brown hair, which he then flipped backwards in an effortless coiffure. Gary was what most girls at school called “cute,” but took no interest in. This had always seemed strange to Gary, as the resulting implications of his “cuteness” and the girls’ lack of interest was, in fact, a paradox. Shaking the thought from his head, Gary hurried out, and returned a moment later to flick the light out. He was off.
The electric garage door opener of 17 Stark Avenue couldn’t have cranked any slower that morning, and as soon as the overhead reached the precise height of five feet and nine and three-quarters inches that Gary had estimated were necessary for his head to clear the door (give or take half an inch for differential air pressure in his tires), his red Schwinn roared through the opening and out into the street.
Gary was particularly proud of the 27-speed Schwinn road bike that he’d saved for nearly four whole summers to buy. The metallic red finish on the bike made the Schwinn an eye-catcher, not to mention the combination brake-lever shifters that granted him his average estimated 0.8 seconds per shift over other riders. The c-curve handlebars let him hunch down over the bike to reduce drag, and the slide-in pedals which had worn a v-shaped curve on his loafers gripped his feet, allowing him to pedal harder without risk of his feet slipping. Gary was infatuated with his bike, but almost as important as all of the parts of his bike, was the nine pin dimple lock that he carried in his backpack, which secured the bike at school. The lock had required almost an entire summer’s worth of Gary’s savings. As far as the people at Elm Street Bicycle and Sport were concerned, the lock was the best on the market.
Gary zipped through the intersections with Renthal Ave and Calvin Street, and at last, the Harry Newman School for Gifted Youngsters was in sight. Gary pedaled harder, and as the school drew near, he executed his leg-over dismount that he’d perfected last summer, which he had calculated saved him about four seconds on average over other riders to dismount. Carefully guiding the Schwinn into the bike rack in front of the school, he fetched the dimple lock from his backpack and wrapped it around both the bike’s frame and the steel rack several times, before snapping the leader into the cylinder, securing the lock. Gary grabbed his bag and jogged into the school.
He stopped in the lobby, checking the gold-plated watch on his wrist for the first time today. It read “9:23.” Nine twenty-three. Physics was scheduled to have started six minutes ago. Gary quickly estimated an 80 percent chance that the teacher had already started class. There was a 75 percent chance the teacher had already taken attendance, and an even higher 97 percent chance that if the teacher had taken attendance, she had noticed that Gary was absent, and had therefore contacted the office, who had contacted his parents. Gary was sure that in the ten minutes since he’d left home, only four of those had been accompanied by silence. The phone ringing off the hook, however, likely accompanied the latter six.
Neither of his parents was home, of course. His mother, a tall beautiful woman who was easily mistakable for a goddess, was likely out early with the other housewives from their block, drinking, smoking, and spending their husbands’ money. His father, on the other hand, was at the firm, no doubt, with his head buried in both work and his secretary’s bosom. He was sure that they were both very interested as to why he wasn’t in school, but right now, that didn’t matter.
Gary made his way through the silent hallways, his small footsteps echoing off the lockers on either side. Even though Gary was only fourteen, he was enrolled in classes that most high schoolers struggled to master. However, his mother had only ever endearingly referred to him as “gifted,” opposed to his two older brothers, whom she personified as “intellectual” and “brilliant.” Where Gary was accelerated about one-and-a-half years in school, his brothers had both topped out at three years ahead of their scheduled courses of study. Robert, the middle brother, was in his freshman year at Princeton University, studying law, whereas Michael, the oldest, was finishing up his master’s degree in rocket engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or, as it was beginning to be known, MIT.
Gary knew he was by far more brilliant than either of his brothers, but simply chose not to apply himself due to the fact that he skated by with an almost spotless academic average without studying the material at all. What would applying himself be worth? Another single point on his ninety-nine average? Regardless of what the reward was, the time Gary would have to sacrifice doing the things he wanted to wasn’t worth it.
The thought frustrated Gary, but he pulled himself back into reality as he reached room 156. His hand hovered above the doorknob as he hesitated, searching his mind for some sort of excuse as to his lateness, but he decided that it was far more likely that he could enter now and find the class still in mayhem while the teacher struggled to gain control than it was that he could wait outside and come up with a plausible excuse while the class settled down, however unlikely it was that the class was indeed still in chaos. He turned the brass handle and pushed the heavy oak door aside.
Unfortunately, luck was not something that generally accompanied Gary.
“Late to my class, Gary Zeissman?” came the stab of his Physics teacher’s high, nasal-sounding voice, as soon as the door creaked open. Gary looked up into the huge lecture hall to see the entire class, stock still, eyes penetrating him with a hundred steely glares. He wished he’d worn another layer, that maybe they could see through his clothes, which suddenly made him more nervous. Perhaps simply an extra set of underwear would have done the trick.
“Uhhh… Of course not, Ms. Toad- er…Todd,” said Gary. The woman, whose real last name was indeed Todd, did strongly resemble a Toad, and Gary had poked fun with a few of his friends many times over this while they sat tutoring Calculus after school.
She waddled over to him on short stubby legs, her little nose held high, her half-moon spectacles sliding lower on that tiny nose with every step until she came to a stop, her face a painfully close distance from Gary’s. Gary had a quick daydream about sneezing; his snot being projected onto her impeccably pressed pink dress, and the obtuse little woman scurrying around the room, hand fanning vainly at her breast while she tracked down a box of Kleenex. He barely suppressed a chuckle.
“Detention,” came the jab of her high voice again. “Three days.” Gary sighed heavily, and nodded, walking to his seat, defeated.
The rest of the day passed in a blur, and after school, Gary reported to detention as he was told. Detention was indeed the worst punishment that “The Toad”, as Gary now liked to refer to her, could have given him. It wasn’t the fact that Gary didn’t like being in school after hours. He certainly didn’t find enjoyment in it, but perhaps what made it bearable was the allure of seeing this establishment, always on its high horse, stripped bare as the janitors swept piles of dust, papers, pencils, and lost belongings into piles along the hallways. Trashcans were strewn everywhere, some emptied, some not. Every door was open, many of which hung on loose hinges that went un-noticed during the day. Even the lockers were left open, each at a different angle, and as one looked down the main drag of the Harry Newman School for Gifted Youngsters, he or she would assume that a hurricane had swept the place. No, the reason that Gary Zeissman was averse to detention was the fact that all of the less-academically-gifted students (dumb kids, as they were un-endearingly referred to by teachers) tended to seek him out because they knew he had all of the correct answers to their homework questions, and exactly the way to word them to receive maximum credit for each individual teacher.
On this particular day, there were four “dumb kids” in detention, three of who asked Gary for help (the fourth slept through the period, saliva dripping from his mouth for almost the entire hour and a half). Gary thought he must have been very well hydrated to perform such a feat. Two social studies assignments and one student’s stubborn calculus assignment later, Gary passed through the doors of hell into heaven, as far as he was concerned. The afternoon sun blinded him, and the fresh spring air filled his lungs, putting a spring in the young boy’s step. Then his eyes adjusted and his step faltered.
There, standing by the bike-rack in the parking lot, was Richard Michaelson, one of the oldest high school students and definitely one of the “dumb kids.” Michaelson was a junior at age 18, and was the dictionary definition of the school bully. He had been held back once, which had given him an instant air of the ring-leader among the bullies a year under him, not to mention an added bad-egg factor which the “dumb kids” seemed to flock to. Among Michaelson’s gang were a few of the worst-behaved students in the school, including one who was rumored to have been arrested, one who was rumored to carry two knives on him at once, and all of whom were confirmed to be certifiable menaces to society at large.
Richard Michaelson drove a 1951 Ford Victoria, the newest model. The black car seemed to personify the group well: bull-headed, overly powerful, and able to rip through opposition like tin foil.
Unfortunately, Gary was known to have openly opposed Michaelson and his gang, and was a prime target for whatever half-baked mischief they were prone to plan.
The lot was standing close to the bike rack, leaning on Michaelson’s car, simply trying to look tough. Apparently, it was working, because a few of the popular sophomore girls were sitting on the Ford’s white leather bench seats, leaning out the open windows with cigarettes in their hands.
Gary rolled his eyes and reluctantly started for the bike rack, keeping his eyes fixed on his target, the red Schwinn, which gleamed in the afternoon sun. His pace quickened as he approached the bike, and when he reached it, he attempted to unchain his bike inconspicuously. Gary’s luck had still not improved.
“Say there Zeissman, is your fly down?” came Michaelson’s jibe.
“Don’t think so, Richard.” Gary replied coolly. He opened the dimple lock and unwound it from the bike’s frame, stuffing it in his bag. Gary quickly rolled the bike out of the rack and turned it away from the car. He heard the sound of movement behind him and turned around to see Michaelson and his four goons towering over him. The ring-leader folded his arms and tilted his head.
“You know, dork, I’ve been waiting for the moment when I can wipe that smug little smile off your face for good, dork,” Michaelson said.
“You know, Richard, that you already used the subject ‘dork’ at the beginning of that sentence, and didn’t need to use it again at the end,” came Gary’s reply. “I see grammatical structure class has done you well. Also, I am not smiling. I wasn’t even smiling before you saw me. Rarely do I smile. In fact, smiling has actually been shown to shorten lifespan due to the fact that it fatigues muscles in your face, leading to reduced brain capacity. You must smile a lot…”
Gary wasn’t sure what he was more satisfied with, the fact that Michaelson and his gang were so brain-dead that they probably believed everything he had just said, or the fact that he was sure to see them smiling less from now on.
Michaelson moved fast. He was clearly not averse to violence. Before Gary knew it, there was a switchblade in the bully’s hand and he was lunging! Gary quickly sidestepped, and drove his fist upward at Michaelson’s chin in a move he’d seen on television designed to either stun the victim or get him to bite through his own tongue, either way incapacitating him. Gary’s fist missed his chin, however, and made solid contact with Michaelson’s nose. There was a crunching and squelching sound on the contact, and the older student dropped like a stone to the pavement. The switchblade skipped end over end across the parking lot, going under the next row of cars.
Richard laid on his back, unmoving, his unblinking eyes wide, fixed on something too far away to see. Red pools slowly started to gather in the “dumb kid’s” eyes, and twin tendrils of deep red snaked their way from his nostrils down his cheeks, where they dripped onto the pavement.
Gary had miscalculated.
Instead of stunning the oversized bully, he had in fact struck so hard that the bone at the top of Richard’s nose had broken off and been driven straight into his brain, killing him instantly.
Gary stood in shock for a moment, and the faces of Michaelson’s followers were suddenly filled with horror as they backed away. The girls in the car screamed and took off across the parking lot, yelling for help.
The young boy stood stock still, processing what had just happened. The screams of the girls and the receding pound of footfalls were nothing but white noise, unprocessed and raw. He stared at Richard’s blank face, expressionless save for maybe a little shock that he had experienced in his last second on earth, invisible to all, save Gary, who had been witness to the bully’s first and last moment of humility.
Before he knew what he was doing, the Schwinn was upright and he was on its seat, pedaling away from the scene as fast the bike, which was as red as the blood on his hands, could carry him. Gary’s hand hurt. He pedaled harder, flying through intersections, at which horns blared and tires screeched in protest. Gary didn’t hear them. He barely even saw anything. The only thing guiding him right now was pure animal instinct. Run. He kept playing over and over in his mind what had happened. How could he have miscalculated? How could he not have seen how risky that stun was, how easily he could miss and-…do what he had done? The Schwinn hit top gear as it sped down Grapevine Hill, and Gary leaned hard into the turn onto Stark Avenue, his knee almost scraping the pavement as the rounded the corner. There, ahead: home.
Gary pedaled furiously, up onto the concrete path lining the road, across his neighbor’s lawn and onto his own. He practically jumped over the c-shaped handlebars, landing on his hands and knees in the grass. Barely noticing the fresh grass-stains on his knees, Gary flew through the door into the house, up the stairs, and slammed the door to his bedroom shut. His breaths were ragged and shallow, his eyes wide. He suddenly realized that his arms were spread wide, holding the door shut against…nobody.
The house was silent, save for Gary’s labored breathing. His mother must still be out with the other women from his block, and his father still at the firm. He rushed into his bathroom and flicked on the light. His breathing stopped for a moment, because what he saw in the mirror, he did not recognize. There, he saw not a boy, but a haunted man, thin and hollow. His skin was pale, his cheeks gaunt. Dark bags hung under the eyes that were now gray in color. Gary rubbed his eyes and looked around. The bathroom walls, which once had a pleasant light blue to them, were now gray as well. He spun around, eyes wide. His bedroom had lost all pigment; the silk sheets of light yellow were now sandpaper gray. Even the accolades of Gary’s life, adorning every inch of the room, were stark. He stood on his bed and grabbed at them, ripping them from the wall, as if there might still be some color behind them. Gary bolted to the window, tearing at the drapery. The heavy brass curtain rod fell and hit Gary squarely on the head. His world went dark.
Then, Gary opened his eyes. He was sitting there on the floor of his bedroom, curtain rod in his lap. He strained at the heavy rod, heaving it aside. Standing, Gary looked around. The house was still silent. Surely Mum and Dad must be home by now, thought Gary. When he looked at his watch, the hands were gone. Someone had turned on the light in his room, because Gary could indeed see, but there was no light from his window. The sun had gone down, but the light from the streetlamps, even passing cars, was absent.
Gary did some quick calculations. Or were they estimates? It didn’t matter any more. He knew that when his father got home, or rather, when the police showed up to arrest Gary for what he had done, his shame would be endless. His parents would disown him; nobody in his town would ever utter his name again, not even in prayer. He was sure of these things.
“I have to make sure they can’t find us,” said Gary aloud. His voice was deafening in the silent house. “Shhh,” he said. “Keep quiet, they’ll find us!” Gary knew exactly what to do. His logic was undeniable. The calculations were complete. Answers had already been estimated, with absolute uncertainties factored in, and no variable was left un-known.
He found the rope in the garage. Thin, yes, but heavy enough to do the trick.
He climbed up to the attic of their house. It was dark. “Light,” said Gary, “may I see you?” The attic was suddenly illuminated. The light seemed to be coming from a small, leather-bound book lying squarely on one of the rafters in the center of the attic. Gary walked over to it, eyeing the golden-edged pages, but he let it be; he had a task. Tying the rope hadn’t even crossed his mind before this, but he tossed it up over one of the rafters and his hands moved autonomously, tying a slipknot. He shook the rope until the knot slid up to the rafter. On the other end of the rope, he tied a noose. Four and three-quarters inches; like he had thought, the calculations were already complete. He slid the noose around his neck and pulled it tight.
The leather-bound book suddenly screamed at him, the words flying out of the pages in the same blood-red as his Schwinn, “Don’t do it; I love you.” Gary ignored it. He jumped…
Then he woke up.