C.R. Scott © 2020
All Rights Reserved
For the first time ever, Jesse almost had a room to himself.
The new house had four bedrooms. It was their house this time, so they could do whatever they wanted with it. They kept the bunk beds though, and as usual, Jesse got stuck with the top while Sam got the bottom.
Already, the room was covered in half-emptied boxes, clothes, various personal items, and discarded fast-food wrappers.
Jesse hung over the edge of his bed so he could see the tiny screen on their TV. His younger brother, Sam, had convinced him to do two-player in Call of Duty. He’d wanted to finish unpacking his stuff, but after an awful lot of complaining on Sam’s part about how completely bullshit it was internet wouldn’t be installed for almost a week, he’d agreed.
They were wasting a perfectly good Sunday evening and had been for the last few hours. Jesse sat with a blank stare, zoned out, the controller hanging loosely from his hands, when a soft voice from the doorway snapped him to attention.
“Jesse, I wanna come up.”
Brian stood in the doorway, a pout on his little round face. He picked his way into the room and stood directly in front of the TV.
“Get out of the way!” Sam’s hands were occupied. He nudged the three-year-old with his foot.
“Stop it,” Brian whined. “Jesse!”
“You should be in bed,” Jesse sighed.
“I can’t sleep. Lissa won’t stop crying.” Brian stepped over a pile of clothes and started up the ladder.
Jesse rolled his eyes, but he dropped the controller and crawled to the edge of the bed. He lifted Brian off the first rung and dragged him to the top bunk.
“Oh, man! I got you,” Sam laughed as he blew Jesse’s character away on-screen.
“Fuck you, I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Dude, Brian, go sleep with the twins. We’re busy,” Sam said as he started a new game.
“Leave us alone! Go back to your room!”
But Jesse knew that wasn’t happening. Just as Brian had mentioned, he could hear baby Melissa wailing in the other room.
Monica shuffled past their door. She had PJs on, and her hair was bedraggled. The baby quieted somewhat, but that was just because she was getting attention. As soon as Monica tried to go back to bed, Lissa would start up again.
Brian watched Sam and Jesse shoot each other up. After a while, his head started nodding. The toddler slumped onto Jesse’s pillows and was soon fast asleep.
“So…are you nervous about starting school?” Sam asked abruptly.
“No.” It was the truth. What was there to be nervous about? “We’ve been to a million other schools before. This one’s no different.”
“I guess,” Sam said. “But…I don’t know. Those other schools were different— Crap!” he cried as Jesse’s character skillfully sniped his.
“Should’ve ducked,” Jesse snickered. He earned a middle finger for his efforts.
As they waited for a new game to load, Sam returned to the topic of school. “This is different,” he said again. “Like when we were living with Joey, that was temporary.”
“Mmm, another of Mom’s boyfriends,” Jesse agreed.
“Yeah,” Sam said. “But there’s no boyfriend here.”
“That’s a good thing, right?”
“I don’t know. What if we hate it? We’re stuck here,” Sam said tightly. “This is our home now.”
Jesse hadn’t thought about it like that. They’d been moving around since before he could remember. They’d stayed with friends and moved in with Monica’s many, many boyfriends. But Monica’s dad, their grandfather, had died about six months ago and he’d left them this rundown house in the middle of nowhere. Monica had considered selling it, but after a bad breakup with Joey, the last asshole boyfriend in Detroit, she’d decided to move them halfway across the country to make this hole-in-the-wall their own.
Nothing was ever set in stone, but from the way she talked about it, they’d be here for a while.
“It’ll be fine,” Jesse said.
“But what if—”
“Dude!” Jesse shot Sam in the head as he ducked out from behind a crumbling wall. “Are you going to play or what?”
It was a lame attempt at distraction, but it worked. Sam kicked the frame of the bed. The top bunk shook. “I’m gonna kill you,” he said.
Beside him, Brian stirred and moaned in his sleep.
Jesse sighed. He brushed a hand through Brian’s blond hair and lulled him back to dreamland as the next game loaded.
Sam and Jesse didn’t go to sleep until two in the morning.
Unfortunately, Brian was up at the crack of dawn. He accidentally kicked Jesse in the shin as he crawled out of the bunk and lowered himself down the ladder.
Jesse clutched his leg and hissed in pain. He blinked a few times in the bright morning light. He could hear voices downstairs. He decided to abandon the idea of sleeping in. He got up and followed the toddler down to the kitchen.
“Mommy, I’m hungry,” Brian said as Jesse came in the room.
The kitchen was full of boxes. Cookware, dishes, utensils, and other such items spilled out of them, half-unpacked. Monica had cleared them away from the stove and was attempting to make pancakes while she balanced Lissa on her hip. When she saw Jesse, she sighed in relief.
“Come take the baby.”
Melissa sniffled as she was handed off. She buried her curly red head against Jesse’s chest and shoved her fingers in her mouth.
“Hello, cranky.” Jesse smiled and toted the baby to the kitchen table. He pushed some boxes aside and found a seat across from Tyler and Allison.
The twins looked up from their Nintendos. They gave Jesse identical sunny smiles.
“What are you guys doing?” Jesse asked, more to keep them distracted than out of actual curiosity. The twins loved talking.
Of course, they felt completely different about Brian, and when he tried to worm his way between the twins to get a look at what they were playing, Allison shoved the toddler away. When he tried again, Tyler hit him.
“Ow!” Brian’s blue eyes welled up with tears.
“Jeez, guys, is that necessary?” Jesse waved Brian over. He picked him up so he could sit next to Lissa.
“You’re such a whiny little baby,” Tyler said.
“Am not,” Brian complained.
Jesse tried his best to keep the peace.
Luckily, Monica was done with breakfast, and she yelled up the stairs for Sam. By the time she started serving the slightly burnt pancakes, Sam had dragged himself into the kitchen.
“Too early…” he groaned. Robotically, he took Melissa from Jesse and sat her in the high chair. She cried at the mishandling, but it was a common enough occurrence that it caused little reaction.
Brian got into his own chair between Jesse and Sam, and Monica took the last chair available at the head of the table. She ignored her own breakfast in favor of spooning mush into Melissa’s mouth.
“Jesse, I need you to watch the kids today. I’ve got to head to the school and get everyone’s classes sorted.”
Jesse sighed, but he nodded. Being the oldest at eighteen sucked. He babysat all the time. He didn’t know why he’d thought it’d be any different here, but he’d hoped.
“I can take care of myself,” Sam pouted as he cut up Brian’s pancakes.
“Me too,” Allison said quickly, following whatever the older and wiser Sam had to say. Tyler would have agreed as well, but his mouth was full of syrup and practically glued shut with the sticky stuff. Jesse struggled not to laugh at the sight.
“Me too!” Brian screeched happily.
Monica, Jesse, and Sam cleaned up the younger kids after breakfast, and then the two older boys took everyone upstairs to get dressed. Monica left to take care of business soon after, and they were left on their own.
The twins wanted to play outside, so Jesse ushered everyone out the back door so he could keep an eye on all his siblings at once.
Sam looked awfully unhappy, but since there wasn’t much to do by himself, he didn’t protest. He took out his soccer ball and started kicking it to Allison and Tyler. When Brian cried at being left out, they turned their impromptu game of soccer into a monkey-in-the-middle type of deal. Jesse knew he should stop them. Brian was becoming upset, but Jesse had his hands full with Lissa. He decided not to get up.
They were in the middle of nowhere out here. There was nothing but woods in one direction and fields in the other. There was a farm way off in the distance, but besides that, their only other neighbor was about a mile down the road.
Jesse could see the house from the backyard. It was a brown, beat-up rambler with ugly lawn decorations among the hedges.
He wondered if there were any kids there his own age. Hoped was more like it. If he had a friend living just down the road, maybe being isolated all the way out here in the boonies would be a little more bearable. He was already going crazy from being stuck with his family for the last few days. Even if he hated the new school, at least it’d be an opportunity to get out of the house and away from his little brothers and sisters.
“Guys, cut it out!” Jesse yelled once the roughhousing had gotten out of hand and Brian began to cry in frustration. “Play nice!” he cried. He gave Sam a sharp look, and with a guilty look on his face, the younger teen called an end to the mean games.
Sam was thirteen, perfectly capable of looking after two five-year-olds or one three-year-old, but when he had to look after all three at once, he seemed to lose a few years of maturity. Sometimes he just needed to be reminded he wasn’t a baby anymore.
Being mature was incredibly boring after all. Sadly, Jesse knew a lot about that.
When Monica came home later that evening, she had good news. Well, maybe not good news to most of the children in the house, but news nonetheless.
“The school wants everyone to start immediately,” she said over dinner. It was fast food again, the quickest and easiest way to feed five hungry kids. Poor Lissa was stuck with more mush from the Gerber jar. “I also went in to check on my transfer at the hospital. I start in a few days.”
Monica was a registered nurse. She said it was her calling to help her fellow man. The fact that she picked up more men there than anywhere else proved she took her job very seriously.
“So, tomorrow, I’ll go have a look at daycare,” she continued over Brian’s cry of distress.
“No!” he complained, but no one listened to him.
“When do we start school?” Jesse asked.
“Bright and early Wednesday morning,” Monica said cheerfully.
Sam groaned with disappointment. “But that’s the day after tomorrow!”
He and Monica argued for a bit, but Jesse didn’t listen in. He was glad. Maybe he wasn’t thrilled about the homework and note-taking and all that other fun stuff, but it’d be nice to talk to someone his own age. Allison and Tyler seemed to feel the same way. They bent their heads together and started whispering excitedly.
“It’s so unfair,” Sam bitched later that night. “If Mom wouldn’t have gone to that stupid school today, I bet we could have gotten another week off.”
Jesse shuddered at the thought. “You’re making too big a deal out of it. It’ll be fine.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Sam said. His bottom lip stuck out petulantly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re always popular. No matter where we go,” Sam said. “Nobody likes me.”
“That’s not true.” Jesse knew it wasn’t true. Sam had friends! He even kept in touch with some of them online.
“I’m so ugly.”
“Are you talking about girls?” Jesse asked. He couldn’t help himself. He started to smirk.
Sam blushed bright red. “No,” he said quickly.
No, Jesse didn’t have a hard time with girls. He wouldn’t say he was overwhelmingly popular with them, but he wasn’t afraid to talk to them either. He dated lots of girls.
He didn’t know what to say about the “ugly” comment though, as he didn’t think he was all that good-looking either. He was too short, only about five six, and he had an annoying spray of freckles across his cheeks. He was average-looking, and his body was on the thin side. He had blue eyes and auburn hair. Sam looked a lot like he did, minus the blue eyes, so he was a little insulted.
“You’re not ugly, okay?” he said awkwardly.
“Seriously.” Jesse ruffled his brother’s hair. “Besides, girls don’t care about looks. They like guys who make them laugh. Or guys who aren’t total jerks.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Sam batted his hand away. “I’m not even talking about girls.”
Jesse laughed. “C’mon. We should at least try to clean this place up before school starts. I won’t be able to find anything.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
The next day Monica enrolled Brian and Lissa in daycare. She assured the fussy toddler that it was very nice and full of fun toys and other kids to play with. Brian hated strange places and new people, and he wasn’t having any of it. His first few days were going to be a nightmare. Monica needed to work though, and everyone else was starting school in the morning.
That night was hectic for everyone. Allison and Tyler didn’t want to go to bed early, Brian was crying, Lissa was crying, Sam was pouting, and there wasn’t much Monica or Jesse could do. Monica locked herself in the nursery with the baby, ignoring everyone else. The twins bounced off the walls in their room across the hall while Brian had a meltdown in the living room.
Jesse concentrated on Brian. He carried him up to his room and promised they’d sleep in his bed again.
Sam was depressed about school. He’d spent most of the evening sulking in bed, but he got up to handle the twins when they began shrieking with laughter. They got settled in their beds; the occasional sound of whispering and laughter gradually dying down.
Jesse gratefully fell asleep.
The chaos continued early the next morning. Getting ready for school was a familiar routine, but Jesse found himself annoyed and wishing for once he didn’t have to take care of everyone else.
After he prodded Sam and Brian awake, he got everyone downstairs for breakfast, then cleaned Brian and the twins and helped them pick out some outfits. He chose a clean outfit for himself and then ran to the bathroom to brush his teeth.
When he heard the bus idling outside, he grabbed Sam and pulled him downstairs.
At least Monica was in a good mood. She sang a cheesy country song as she packed the twins’ backpacks in the living room.
“See you boys tonight,” she called.
Jesse waved goodbye and yanked Sam out the front door.
He was a little disappointed when he got on the bus and saw it was completely empty. Well, except for the driver. He smiled at the balding older man. “Good morning,” he said pleasantly.
The bus driver nodded.
Jesse found a seat right in the middle. He was irritated when Sam sat beside him.
The bus ambled down the road a bit, and Jesse looked curiously out the window. He spotted the neighbor’s house, and his spirits lifted when he saw there was another boy waiting in the driveway. He squirmed with impatience as they slowed to a halt in front of the house.
The neighbor boy briskly crossed the street. He pushed his way past the half-opened doors and onto the bus. He stormed all the way to the back. He didn’t look at Sam and Jesse.
Immediately, the bus lurched into movement once more, and the boy threw his backpack violently into his seat. He slumped down after it and turned to stare out the window.
Jesse could barely contain himself. He had an odd feeling the boy wouldn’t welcome company, but he climbed over his brother anyway and hurried to the back. He sat directly in front of the other boy, turned around, and smiled brightly. “Hi!”
The boy had been gazing listlessly out the window, but as Jesse continued to smile at him, the boy turned and leveled a spectacular glare his way. “Who are you?”
Jesse’s smile faltered, but he didn’t back down. “I’m Jesse. I’m new,” he said.
The boy furrowed his thick eyebrows. He looked deeply unhappy.
“We live just down the road from you,” Jesse said uneasily. “I guess that makes us neighbors.”
“So what?” The boy grunted, looking even more hostile than before.
Jesse studied the other boy in confusion. What’s with this guy? He looked to be about Jesse’s age, possibly in the same grade as well. He had frizzy brown hair and squinty black eyes. He looked…furious, and his wide lips twisted into a snarl the longer Jesse stared.
He smelled strange too… Jesse tried not to wrinkle his nose. It was like cheese or something. Sweaty cheese and old stale smoke. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Why do you care?”
“I’m just trying to be nice,” Jesse said. He received a scowl for his trouble.
Jesse and the boy stared at each other. The boy’s dark eyes narrowed as he wordlessly refused to answer.
“Um…I’m sorry, I’ll leave you alone now,” Jesse said. He felt stupid. He wanted to hide.
Jesse was already getting up, so he almost didn’t hear the other boy speak. He turned back when he introduced himself though, a huge smile alighting his face.
The boy, Shaun, looked away quickly, trying to hide his momentary flash of interest. If it could be called that.
Either way, Jesse sat back down.
“What grade are you in?”
“Junior year,” Shaun said gruffly. He looked boredly out the window.
“That’s so cool!” Jesse said. “Me too.”
“I wonder if we have any classes together.” Jesse hadn’t received his schedule yet.
“Probably will. The classes are small.”
“Oh.” Jesse’s eyes widened. “How many juniors are there?”
Shaun shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe thirty.”
“That’s all?” There’d been thirty people in every class in Jesse’s last school. The high school had housed two thousand kids total.
The bus lurched to a stop and two girls got on. They were obviously middle schoolers, and they headed straight for Sam. Jesse’s little brother sent him a panicked look, and Jesse grinned at him with encouragement.
“My little brother,” Jesse said automatically. He was surprised to hear Shaun asking a question. He didn’t seem very interested in conversation. In fact, once Jesse answered, Shaun pulled a battered CD player out of his backpack and hung the earphones around his neck.
“What’re you listening to?” Jesse asked, hoping to stall the other boy. He didn’t want to sit in silence.
“Pantera,” Shaun said.
“I’ve heard some of their stuff,” Jesse said easily. “They’re pretty cool.”
Shaun seemed surprised. “Really?”
“Sure,” Jesse said, missing Shaun’s look of disbelief. “I like all kinds of music.”
Shaun frowned. “I like metal. I’m in a band. A metal band,” he said dangerously.
“Awesome! What do you play?” Jesse asked. For all he knew, he could be talking to a metal god!
“I play the guitar,” Shaun said as he fiddled with his CD player. “You wouldn’t like us though. We’re hardcore.”
“You don’t know what I like, dude,” Jesse said with a laugh, refusing to be turned off by Shaun’s rude behavior. “You should let me know when you’re playing next. I didn’t think there’d be any metal bands out here in the middle of nowhere.”
“Yeah,” Shaun said darkly. “People around here don’t appreciate good music. It’s all country shit or worse yet, that fucking rap.”
Jesse laughed again. He liked both country and rap.
The bus stopped, and Jesse glanced toward the front. A few more people got on this time. Three girls and two more boys. They all seemed to be older, most likely high school at least. One of the boys, tall and athletic, smiled as soon as he saw Jesse. He headed to the back of the bus with his companions in tow.
“Speak of the devil,” he said, sitting across from Jesse. “I was just telling everybody I heard there was a new kid in town and there you are!”
Jesse didn’t know what to say, so he smiled at everyone. Two of the girls sat in front of Jesse, and they smiled back at him in a friendly manner. One was blonde, and the other had long, shiny black hair. They were both pretty.
The third girl was shockingly pregnant. It wasn’t so much that she was pregnant that was shocking. He’d just never seen such a small girl with such a huge belly. It looked ridiculous on her. The other boy, the one who hadn’t spoken, sat beside the pregnant girl. He took her hand possessively.
“I’m Emily,” said the girl with long black hair. Jesse thought she had a nice smile. “And that’s my dumb brother, Kenny,” she continued, pointing to the athletic boy who’d started the conversation. “He’s nicer than he looks.”
Kenny stuck his tongue out, and everybody laughed.
Jesse turned back to Shaun, wanting to share the amusement with his new friend, but he stared intensely out the window. His face was red with anger. Jesse’s eyes widened. Hadn’t they just broken the ice? He was taken aback by the hostility wafting off Shaun in tsunami-sized waves.
Nobody else seemed to notice.
“I’m Sunny,” the blonde said cheerfully, drawing Jesse’s attention back to the new arrivals.
“And that’s Lee and Rick.” Kenny introduced the pregnant girl and her boyfriend. Lee smiled, but her boyfriend eyed Jesse with suspicion.
“Howdy,” said Lee. “And this is little Ashley.” She rubbed her enormous belly. “I didn’t get that ultrasound yet, but I know it’s a girl. I’m fixin’ to name her Ashley. After my mama.”
“Oh.” Jesse scratched the back of his neck. He was having a hard time concentrating on the conversation with Shaun’s glare burning into his back. He could see Shaun staring at him from the corner of his eye, but when he tried to catch him at it, Shaun switched to staring out the window.
Jesse wondered what he’d done wrong. “Ashley’s a pretty name,” he said distractedly.
“Thanks!” Lee said.
“So, where are you from, Jesse?” Emily asked.
“My family moves around a lot, so I wouldn’t say we’re from anywhere,” he said, pulling up a typical answer to a typical question. “But we moved from Detroit.”
“What year are you in?”
“Eleventh.” Jesse got a smile from both Kenny and Emily. It seemed they were in the same grade.
“Do you like it here?” Sunny asked.
“I’ve only been here a few days, and I haven’t gotten out much,” Jesse said. “But it’s okay, so far.”
The questions continued in rapid succession. Jesse supplied information on the places he’d lived previously, his old school, his family. Emily and Sunny asked if he had a girlfriend.
“Nope,” Jesse said, unable to admit he was single without blushing.
The girls giggled, and Emily gave him a flirtatious look.
They were all nice and extremely friendly. Even Rick managed to warm up a little before the bus ride was over. He asked if Jesse played any sports.
“Sure. I’m pretty good at football and baseball.”
He received an approving nod from the boys.
But no matter how friendly they were, the entire conversation was spent ignoring Shaun’s presence. Jesse didn’t think he’d ever been in a more awkward position in his life. Everyone gave Shaun and his glowering looks the cold shoulder.
It was like he didn’t exist.
If Jesse hadn’t been able to smell Shaun’s slightly rank scent, see his frizzy hair in the corner of his eye, hear the tinny sound of Pantera coming from his earphones, he would have had to conclude Shaun was just a figment of his imagination.
When they got to the high school, Shaun stood up the second the bus stopped. He purposefully shoved his bag into Kenny and then rudely pushed past Lee as the girl struggled to get out of her seat.
“Jerk,” Kenny muttered under his breath.
“Is he…always like that?” Jesse asked curiously. He wasn’t stupid. He got the feeling Shaun was a loner, but Jesse hadn’t done anything to warrant his hatred. Yet that stare of his had been nothing but hate personified.
“Don’t worry about him,” Emily said before anyone else could respond. “I mean, it’s best if you don’t try to talk to him.”
What kind of advice was that?
“I already talked to him. He wasn’t so bad,” Jesse said as he followed his new friends off the bus. He paused to hit his little brother on the back of the head. The middle school was the next building over, so he and his two new girlfriends were getting dropped off next.
Sam slapped his hand away. “Screw off, Jess,” he muttered, sending the middle school girls into giggles.
Jesse smiled. He always felt better when he got to be a mean big brother.
“Shaun’s strange. Sometimes…most of the time…he’s okay. He’s quiet and doesn’t bother anyone,” Sunny continued once they were off the bus.
“Yeah, but if you say the wrong thing, he’ll go crazy,” Lee chimed in. “He beat up my cousin a few years back. And my cousin’s huge!”
“I remember that.” Kenny frowned. “Didn’t Shaun have a knife on him?”
“Oh my goodness, yes!” Lee cried, rubbing her stomach uncomfortably. “He was about to gut poor Georgie when the teachers came and pulled him off.”
“He’s a freak,” Rick said viciously.
Jesse was surprised by the vehemence in Rick’s declaration. He almost expected someone to refute his claim. To shake their heads and take everything back, but no one did.
“Stay away from him, if you can,” Kenny said.
“And if you can’t, then just ignore him. It’s what we do,” Emily said.
Jesse didn’t know what to think about all that.
Sure, that stare Shaun had leveled at him had been strangely malevolent, but obviously, he was used to being hated. His new friends hated Shaun. They said mean things behind his back, purposefully excluded him, told scary—obviously exaggerated—stories about him, and spread rumors.
Jesse didn’t know enough to pass any sort of judgment on anyone. His new friends seemed nice in every other way, so he decided to give them the benefit of the doubt. He assumed the only reason they were being so mean was that they honestly didn’t know any better.
Jesse wasn’t going to ignore Shaun, though. He was too curious to do that.
Shaun wasn’t exactly pleasant, but that didn’t bother Jesse much. There’d been something about him that he liked, oddly enough.
So, Jesse didn’t promise anything. He simply followed his new friends into the smallest high school he’d ever had the dubious pleasure of entering. He had to get his class schedule.