by E.Escher - 20th Mar 2017
'Go ahead, Scott, hit me. I don't care.'
'Is that right?' The bigger boy sneered in Adam's face, then looked round at his circle of cronies. 'You hear that, guys? He's giving me permission.'
The punch still took Adam by surprise, and he barely managed to stay upright as he reeled from the impact. His vision blurred, dark around the edges, and his ears rang. Rough hands grabbed his jacket and slammed him against something. The lockers, he realised, identifying the rattle of padlocks. The face in front of him was a hazy blob, blurting words that sounded like he was underwater.
Scott. The bully was shouting at him. Adam focussed on Scott's eyes, pale blue in a mask of hatred. Why was he so angry? Adam never did anything to him. Everything in Adam's life was falling apart already, he didn't need this on top of everything else.
'This is nothing.' The words slipped out, unbidden, and Adam blinked as the world swam back into focus. Scott looked furious.
Adam shrugged. He hadn't meant to say it, and the throbbing in his head certainly didn't feel like nothing, but now he'd said it, it made a weird kind of sense.
'I'm leaving town. This weekend. My dad's moving us to some tiny town in the middle of a desert and I'm gonna have no friends and nothing to do until college starts, which isn't for months. This? This is just you being a dick, because your life has no value unless you're spoiling the day for somebody else. You think we're all afraid of you, but we're not. We just avoid you the same we'd avoid a turd on the sidewalk.'
Scott loomed closer, his face red. 'Are you calling me… a turd?'
'Not even that. I could almost pity you, but fact is, I just don't care. I've got bigger things on my plate right now, and in a few days you'll be out of my life forever.'
Scott's momentary look of confusion turned to a vicious grin. 'That sounds like a challenge, runt. Maybe I should give you something to remember me by.'
Scott raised a fist, but Adam just smiled. The bully hesitated.
'You're the biggest, strongest, toughest kid in school, but when we're all grown up that won't mean a thing. I know the combination to your locker,' hissed Adam. 'I know the password for your email, I know where you lock your bike. This time tomorrow I'll be gone. What do you want me to do with my last day in town?'
The bully furrowed his thick brow and turned this over. Adam decided to push a little further.
'I know your secret.'
It was barely a whisper, but the bully was visibly rattled. He blinked, glanced quickly at his entourage, then back at Adam. He hid his panic quite well, and Adam wondered distantly what secrets the bigger boy was hiding. Probably steroids.
'Yeah, whatever, runt. You're not worth my time.' With one last slam against the wall, Scott backed off, apparently satisfied that he'd somehow 'won' the encounter. Adam heard him chuckling to his cronies as the group wandered away:
'One less runt in town, my work here is done.'
# # #
'So you're really leaving? Tomorrow? Isn't that, like, super-sudden?'
Adam sighed. 'Tell me about it.'
Stump was Adam's friend. Best friend, only friend. His name was Stewart, but it had somehow turned into 'Lumpy Stew' and then 'Stumpy Stew' and now everybody just called him Stump. In all honesty, it suited him.
'So how come you only just found out?'
'Apparently some factory needs a new manager in the world's biggest hurry, and they'll pay big money for somebody who can relocate on short notice.'
'That would normally be somebody without a family, though, right? You can't just leave school now! Exams are in three weeks!'
Adam rolled his eyes. 'Oh yeah, that's a bummer. I guess I'll have to fail some different exams in a different town.'
'I can't believe your folks would do this to you, though. Dragging you away from all your friends!'
'I tried that line. Mom says I'll make new friends, and Dad says leaving town is my best bet for finding a girlfriend, and that matters more than friends.' They'd actually said 'better friends', but Adam didn't repeat that. Stump's self-esteem was low enough already. Without Adam he'd be completely alone, and that didn't bear thinking about.
'We can stay in touch, though, right?' Stump tried a nervous smile. 'There's always the internet.'
'Jesus, I freakin' hope so. Can you imagine? Are there even still places that don't have internet?'
'Probably, especially out in the sticks. How did your dad find a place to live on such short notice?'
'He didn't. We're going to stay with my weird uncle Pat until he can find us a place to move into.'
'Weird uncle Pat?'
'Oh. Yeah. You know when your folks have a friend and they're always around, and they get called uncle whatever? Pat's an old air force buddy of my Dad's.'
'And he's weird?'
'A little, I guess. He picked that name himself, when I was little. He was always around, him and Auntie Kath, and Evie.' His folks were both only-kids, like himself, so he didn't have any real aunts or uncles.
Stump's eyes lit up. 'Evie? You have a weird auntie and cousin, too?'
'Just the cousin. Auntie Kath died a long time ago. Pat moved away after that, took Evie with him. I was eight, she was eleven, I think. She was okay, I guess. We never had much to do with each other.'
'Dude, she's eighteen now. You're gonna be living in a house with a girl! Is she hot? Tell me she's hot. It's not like you're related.'
'I haven't seen her in years, man. We were kids.'
'Hm. Okay.' Stump looked away, into the distance. 'I bet she's hot. There has to be some upside to this.'
'Yeah,' Adam felt bleak. 'It can't be as shit as it feels to be me right now. There's not enough shit in the whole world.'
# # #
All Adam's possessions were boxed up and packed into two trucks, along with everything the family owned. Most of the boxes were headed into storage, and wouldn't be seen again until they found a new home. Adam's parents had allocated him a single box to go into storage, and another to bring to Uncle Pat's house. Once he'd packed away his computer, his collection of comics (and other magazines), most of the rest was just clothes. Being the middle of summer, he tossed most of his warm clothes into the storage container. Hopefully they'd have a home of their own to live in before he needed them again.
Now that he'd had time to consider, the move didn't upset him as much. Sure, he'd probably never see Stump again, but that was more a problem for Stump than for Adam. One short fat nerdy kid wasn't exactly an irreplaceable support network. As his mom had said, he was sure to make new friends, especially once he was out of his own shadow and free to reinvent himself with a whole new social circle. Hopefully Evie would put in a few good words for him, maybe introduce him to some of her friends, or their younger sisters.
Was he going to have his own room? He hadn't seen or heard from Uncle Pat in years, and although he knew his parents had stayed in touch they never talked about him. How big was his house, that he could take in a second family? Was it huge, or were they all going to cram into a single spare bedroom?
Oh god, he prayed, please don't make me share a room with my parents.
The trip promised to be awful, stuck in the car with his Mom while Dad drove one of the trucks. The removal guys would follow them to Pat's house, and Dad would take a detour to the storage place. Once everything was unloaded, either Mom or Pat would go and pick him up from the depot.
It wasn't a bad plan, except that his Mom couldn't navigate her way out of a paper sack, so Adam would have to feed her directions. She had a history of erratic driving and her insurance premiums were still sky-high after she'd caused three crashes in a single year. He'd far rather be in the truck with his Dad, or even with the random removal guys, but there was no way she'd get there without him.
# # #
'Are you sure?' asked his Mom, for the millionth time. Adam groaned.
'Yes, I'm sure. Look, I keep telling you to follow Dad. He's going to take the next off-ramp, and so should we.'
'How do you know that's where he's going?'
'Because that's the route he marked on the map.' Sure enough, the truck's blinkers started flashing. 'See?'
'Okay. I'm just not sure what I'm doing. How do you know which truck your dad is in?'
He stared at her. 'Dad's the one in front. The other guys are following us.'
She gasped. 'They don't know the way?'
'I'm pretty sure they know where they're going, but they're following us in case we have to divert or something.' He took a swig from his water bottle, and let out a sigh.
'Are you all right, hun? You're sweating.'
'Bit of a headache,' he admitted.
'Probably from squinting at that map for hours on end. I keep telling you to get your eyes checked.'
'I don't need glasses mom, my eyes are fine.'
'Well, maybe the sun's too bright. There's some sunglasses in the glove box.'
The sun was beating down pretty hard, and even with the windows down their dusty black SUV was turning into an oven. Adam dug out the shades (a pair of his dad's, thankfully, not his mother's), and slipped them on. It helped a little.
'Is that better?' she asked.
'Why don't you rest for a while, and I'll just follow the truck?'
He grimaced. Why couldn't she have said that hundreds of miles back? 'He'll be splitting off in a few miles, for the depot.'
Mom nodded. 'Oh, well, a few minutes rest is better than nothing, right?'
'I don't want to miss the junction, Mom. Just keep your eyes on the road, I'll be fine.'
In fact, he wasn't feeling fine. He'd been having intermittent queasy spells since Scott has hit him the day before, and he felt the onset of another spell now. He sat back in the chair and closed his eyes, just for a few seconds, to wait for it to pass.
'Is this the junction, Hun? Your dad's changing lanes.'
'Huh?' Adam blinked, grabbing the map in confusion. Junction? Already? He must have dozed off! He looked for road signs, but streaks of light made everything unreadable. He looked at the map, and that was streaky as well. Were the shades dirty or something? He snatched them off and turned to his Mom.
'I think I zoned out.'
'Okay, just tell me-' She turned his way and screamed. 'ADAM!?' Suddenly gripped by panic, she let go of the wheel and pressed herself against the door.
'Mom? What the… what are you doing!?' He lunged to grab the wheel, and his Mom screamed even louder, trying to shove him away. The engine screamed as she trampled the accelerator, throwing them both back against their seats.
The sun was blocked for a blissful instant as they drove up behind the truck, and then everything went black.
# # #
'Adam? Can you hear me?'
He opened his eyes, blearily, and looked into the face of a beautiful girl. She smiled at him, and he stared blankly, trying to force his scrambled mind into order.
'Pretty.' She wore white, and her hair was a tumbling mass of wavy blonde. 'Are you an angel?' he asked.
She laughed. 'No sweetie, I'm your cousin. Your weird cousin. Do you remember me?'
He frowned, dragging up a memory. 'Evie?'
'Ha, that's right. Do you know where you are?'
'In a hospital.' His bed was beneath a window, and the sunlight streamed in through the blinds, turning Evie's blonde hair into a glowing halo. Had he really thought she was an angel? What an idiot. His mind was all over the place, and it was hard to concentrate.
He knew then that there something he should be remembering. The crash, the paramedics, the doctors. His mom had crashed the car into dad's truck, driven them both off the freeway. They were hurt... No. Not hurt. They were dead. Both of them.
He let out a little sound, partly pain, mostly despair and loss. Evie laid her hand on his, but he barely felt it. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to wish it all away. Maybe he'd dreamed some of it. Maybe they weren't really dead, and any minute now they'd walk in to check up on him.
Evie leaned close, and spoke into his ear. 'You're going to be okay, Adam. You're not alone.'
# # #
Adam slept, and dreamed. He dreamed of the crash, of his Mom's terrified screams, the confusion of images. Metal crunched, tyres screeched, glass smashed. None of it made any sense.
He also dreamed of a young woman, smiling warmly as she took his hand. Those dreams were better, and he started to think about her when he was awake, as well.
# # #
After a few days, strange men in suits came and confirmed once again that he'd been in a crash, and both his parents had died. They had dash-cam footage from both trucks, and given his mother's insurance history they weren't going to spend too much time investigating. They asked him a few routine questions, but he had no good answers to give them.
Officially, his mother had lost control of the vehicle and collided with his dad's truck. The car had spun away sideways and begun to roll, while the truck had veered off the freeway, slid down the embankment and slammed into the side of an overpass.
Emergency services had extracted them from the vehicles, but his parents were both already dead.
In the absence of any other family, he would be living with his godfather. Weird uncle Pat.
# # #
Uncle Pat took care of everything, even though he was obviously devastated. Adam didn't recognise him at first, but of course he hadn't seen the man in seven years and clearly a lot had changed. The Pat he remembered was clean-shaven with a buzz-cut, but he now sported a bushy beard and his long hair was tied into a ponytail. His hair was mostly iron-grey, and he wore a scuffed leather jacket, but he still had the same wry smile, the same upright military bearing that Adam remembered.
'Another couple of days, sport, while the bruising fades, and then you can come home.'
Home, of course, being Pat's house, which Adam had never seen. How could that be home?
Pat had arranged for crews to recover all of the stuff from the crashed vehicles, and sorted out what was what. He had a room for Adam, and all his stuff was apparently already in there waiting for him. He desperately wanted to contact Stump, to let somebody know what had happened, but he didn't think he would be able to find the words. How would he even begin to describe his life now, when he didn't know himself?
'Uncle Pat? Are you my dad, now?'
'Nuh-uh, sport. I'm your guardian, and your godfather, but I'm still just weird uncle Pat. You can just call me Pat, though, if you prefer. Everybody else does, and I figure you're old enough.'
That seemed weird. Surely he didn't mean everybody. 'Does Evie call you Pat?'
'Evie? Haw! Man, I haven't heard that in a while. No, she calls me Dad, and I call her Eve. She hasn't been Evie since her mom died.'
'Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't realise.'
'Naw, I'm sure it's fine. Ask her yourself, I bet she won't mind. After all, one way or another you're family now.' Pat nodded to himself, as though saying it out loud had settled something. 'You just rest up and get your head in order, I'll come get you soon.'
'Will Eve... Evie, visit again?'
'I expect so, sport. I expect so.'
# # #
Pat's house was a sprawling single-story complex on the outskirts of a small airfield. A former air-force mechanic, he made a living working on small planes, as well as the occasional car or motorbike.
'Anything that's broken, I'll have a look at it,' he explained. 'Sometimes it can be fixed, sometimes not. I get less of those interesting jobs, these days. Mostly folks just go buy a replacement.' He had sighed, heavily. 'Too much stuff these days is computerised. Ain't no fixing that stuff, not with the skills I got. I'm old-school.'
'I'm pretty good with computers,' volunteered Adam. 'I built my own.'
'Maybe you can help Eve with hers, then. Damn thing's going slower and slower, makes no sense to me. It's not like there's any moving parts, right? Nothing needs oiling, nothing springs a leak. What's the deal?'
There was no quick way to explain the potential issues, so Adam had merely promised to take a look once he got his own computer connected up and running.
His new room was huge, and he was pleased with the size until he realised that this was almost certainly going to have been his parents' room. Still, it was a decent-sized room, big enough that Pat had brought more of his stuff out of storage while he was recovering in hospital.
This room had a big window, as well as a patio door that opened into the back yard. There was a large but scrubby lawn, a paved area, and even a pool out there, then a low wooden fence, and then the wide open space of the airfield. There was always some kind of activity out there, but the small planes weren't too noisy, and his windows were virtually soundproof.
He had a small sheaf of posters on his bed, but hadn't decided where to put them, or if he was even going to bother. His new life was going to be different, so maybe it was time to reinvent himself as somebody new. There was a mirror on the back of the door, and he turned to look at his reflection.
He still looked a mess. The bruises still hadn't quite faded, but he'd come out of the accident relatively unscathed. The doctors had been concerned about head trauma, but he had no broken bones, no deep cuts (but plenty of scratches and shallow cuts from shattered windows), and would heal with no scars.
No physical scars, he amended the thought. He still had a hazy memory of his mom recoiling from him in horror, but he couldn't make sense of it. Why would she do that? Had he dreamed it? Was it a fabricated memory his mind had crafted to plug a gap in his recollection? Maybe she'd had similar episodes in the past, it would certainly explain her driving history, the times she'd arrive home in the cab of a recovery truck, unable to explain how the car had come to end up in a ditch, or up a tree.
He would probably never know. He was nothing much to look at, but even now he wasn't something you'd shy away from. He'd lost some weight during his sojourn, and it looked like he needed a haircut. The bright sun in this part of the country had already started bleaching his hair, too, and it looked a couple of shades lighter than he remembered. Or maybe that was just the light streaming in through his windows. Summer here was seriously bright.
He needed some shades. The pair from the car were never recovered, and he didn't think he'd want to wear that pair again anyway. Too many memories.
He considered asking Uncle Pat for a pair, but he and Evie had already given him a lot, and he didn't want to push. He had a roof over his head, food, a family of sorts, or at least some friendly people to talk to, but he didn't really have anything to do, and he didn't have much in the way of cash.
He was sole beneficiary of his parents' will, of course, but that would take time to process, and most of it would be put into trust, or handed over to Pat to dole out as he saw fit.
Adam had really struck lucky there, though; Weird Uncle Pat was actually a great guy, just as much fun as he remembered but also cool in ways he'd never understood when he was just a kid. Evie, too, was as warm and wonderful a girl as he could ever hope to meet. They hadn't had much to do with each other when they were younger, that three-year gap in their ages had seemed insurmountable at the time. She had thought he was a stupid little kid, and he was still in his 'girls have cooties' years. He'd been an idiot at that age. He suspected all kids were.
Now the three year gap meant she was a fully-fledged young woman, while he was barely on the first steps toward becoming a man. Sure, he was cute enough, in a boyish way, but boyish looks wouldn't get him a girlfriend like Evie.
Evie herself could never be his girlfriend, of course. He knew that. She was out of his league, for starters, and now she was practically his sister, but he still couldn't stop thinking of her, and some of those thoughts were downright inappropriate.
I'm a teenage boy, he reminded himself, and she's drop-dead gorgeous. It's only natural to daydream a little. So far there hadn't been any 'unfortunate' accidents, no glimpses of anything forbidden, but he lived in hope. She always had a smile for him, and while it wasn't exactly a sisterly smile, it wasn't a girlfriend smile either.
He started to work out, using the makeshift weights in Uncle Pat's gym. He helped out around the house, doing chores or assisting with meals. He figured out the problem with Evie's computer, and got the house's internet working smoothly again. He started helping Pat at the airfield, and looking for a part-time job.
Life was okay.
# # #
Weeks had passed, without note or record. He'd deliberately ignored the date, forcing himself to treat every day as a separate episode, with no connection to the past, but there was something he'd been putting off, and it was time to man up and deal with it.
It was time to contact Stump. He hadn't done it yet, because he'd have to let his old friend know what had happened, and he wasn't sure he was ready to go through it in any detail. He had a plan to minimise the problem, but hadn't done anything about it yet.
He couldn't just ignore the emails forever, though. He woke his computer and pulled up the latest message. The last few were all the same: Why don't you answer? Hope everything is okay. Don't worry about me, everything is fine.
Adam hit 'reply', and started typing.
'Hi Stump,' he began.
'Sorry so late, things are messed up. There was an accident on the road, and my folks are dead. I'm living with Uncle Pat now. We have internet (slow but working). Not much else to report.'
That was as much detail as he could handle. Hopefully Stump would read his words and realise he didn't want to elaborate.
He clicked 'send'.
# # #
The response came back a few hours later.
'Yo, good to hear from you man! I've been worried.' That was classic Stump, never one to hide his feelings.
'Sorry to hear about your folks. That must suck.' Understatement was another common trait of Stump's emails. Adam sighed and read the rest.
'Scott has gone all weird. He's keeping to himself, even ignoring his posse. They're still annoying everybody, but without Scott backing them up they mostly just skulk around and make fun of people. Nobody's been beaten up for days.'
Had Adam's words had an effect on the bully? It seemed unlikely, but the big boy's behaviour sounded extremely weird. Maybe he was worried that Adam knew some secret. If so, it wouldn't take him long to realise nothing was going to happen. Once he realised his secret was safe, things would go back to normal.
'Tell me about your new place. What's your cousin like? I bet she's hot. Is she hot? Send pics!'
He rolled his eyes. Yeah, right. He didn't have any photos to send, for starters, and she was hardly likely to pose for any. There weren't even any family photos on the walls of the house, but there must be some photos somewhere, from vacations or graduation or whatever. Maybe he'd ask, if the subject came up.
# # #
'You've been hitting the weights,' Uncle Pat gave an approving nod as Adam entered the workshop carrying a box of engine parts. 'Seems to be doing you some good.'
Adam set the box down and shrugged. 'I guess. I seem to be getting stronger, but I can't see any muscles yet.' He flexed his arm, but the results weren't impressive.
Pat frowned in thought. 'I'd say you were trimming down, if anything, losing weight. Your workout must be too aerobic - you're burning fat instead of building muscle mass. If you want to bulk up you need to do the right exercises.'
Adam shrugged. He didn't honestly know one exercise from another, and had just been copying stuff he'd seen on TV. Maybe he could find some instructions online.
'What you really need is some bulk-up powder. I've got some in the shed.'
'Powder?' That didn't sound good.
'Like nesquik. It makes a drink, and then you go work out. Lifting heavy stuff actually tears your muscles, and then they heal back stronger. This stuff helps with that part.'
'Oh. Torn muscles sounds pretty bad.'
'Not torn in half, silly, it's natural wear and tear. You ever hear guys at the gym saying they're gonna feel it tomorrow? That's what they'll feel. You do the workout, and then next day your arms are sore, while they heal up. It's normal, you get used to it.'
'I guess. How do you know you haven't done too much?'
'You're only lifting bricks and paintcans, Sport. If it's too much, you won't be able to do it. It's not like your arms are gonna yank out've the sockets.'
# # #
Later that day, Adam changed into his vest and shorts and regarded himself in the mirror. Uncle Pat was right, he was thinner, but not in a scrawny way. He struggled for the right word, and settled on 'slim'. His legs had some muscle tone, which was an improvement. As a kid his body had always been an ill-defined blob with arms and legs, to the despair of his teachers in gym class. He never got bullied over it, because compared to Stump he was a sleek teenage demigod.
Now he had nobody to hide behind, and realised he wasn't happy with how he looked. At first he'd thought he could put on some muscles and impress Evie, but looking at himself now, he realised he had been wasting his potential for years.
He'd lost some weight from his cheeks, or something, because his face looked subtly different. He supposed that could just be because he was wearing his hair differently now - it had grown a bit and he'd taken to tying it back in a baby ponytail. Uncle Pat wore a ponytail, so it seemed an acceptable solution, but combined with the weight loss and the bleaching effect of the sun, he looked almost like a different kid. If this kept up, nobody from back home would even recognise him.
He noticed something else. His vests were getting shorter. Must be something in the laundry, or the water, or the different powder Pat used, or something, except, he hadn't worn this vest since he got here, and it was barely long enough for his requirements. Adam always chose his clothes long and baggy, to cover any accidental boners. Most of his vests now were only just long enough, which was why he'd dug this last one out of his suitcase. He pondered over this for several long seconds before realising the implication of shrinking clothes.
Holy crap. He was getting taller! Finally, a growth spurt! No wonder he wasn't putting on any muscle, his body was busy using all his energy and protein to grow new bones or whatever. He didn't really know how that stuff worked, but what mattered was that he was finally becoming a man, and as a man, he might have a chance with a girl like Evie.
# # #
He practically ran through the house and headed for the gym. Whatever he'd been doing was working, so he needed to keep it up. In fact, he needed to do more of it, and pay more attention to lifting stuff with his arms.
He set about his routine with new vigour, determined to break a proper sweat and hone his soon-to-be-adult body into something impressive. He was barely warmed up, however, when a polite cough from the door caught his attention. It was Evie, carrying a large flask.
'Dad said you'd be in here. He asked me to give you something.'
Adam looked up and almost choked. Evie's hair was pulled back into a high ponytail, and she was wearing dark blue leggings and a neon-pink crop-top. The leggings had a matching pink stripe down the sides, stopping at mid-calf. Her socks and trainers were bright white. She looked like she's stepped out of a fitness magazine.
She ignored his stammer and skipped over to offer him the flask. 'He mixed you up a batch of his protein shake, so you can grow up big and strong.' She smiled, and gave the weights a look-over. 'Is that what you're lifting?'
'Uh, yeah. I didn't want to mess with anything, so I'm just using them as I found them.'
'I see that. Those are what dad lifts.'
'You can lift those okay?'
'Well, it was tough to start with, but they're getting easier. I can lift them now.' He picked up one of the dumbells and hefted it to chest height. Evie looked impressed.
'Whoa. You're stronger than you look.'
'Concrete blocks and stuff, there's no numbers on 'em. I have no idea how heavy any of this stuff is.'
'Me either, but you've seen dad lugging heavy boxes about, he's a pretty strong guy. Those are the weights he lifts when he wants to push himself.'
Adam had no answer to that. 'Uh, so, are you here to work out? I mean, you look, uh, nice.'
Evie gave him a curious look. 'Uh huh? Really? Thanks, but no, I'm going out for a run. Tell you what, though, give me notice next time and I'll spot you, if you like.'
'Spot me? Oh. Oh! Yeah, sure, that'd be great. Thanks.'
'Da nada.' She ducked back out through the door and was gone, leaving Adam alone with his furiously distracted imagination.