Fiction: Peel

By Ryan Cecere

On a frosty November morning, the town freak slithered out of bed, snuck out the back yard and ventured down to the lake a mile from his home, cutting through the woods as crickets chattered. Overhead, rain drizzled from an ominous pool of black so dense the sky hid the clouds, which appeared only briefly by the flash of lightning.
The freak’s wet, beat-up sneakers he’d been wearing for over a handful of years now were caked with mud from the grass and dirt. A dark streak resided on one cheek from the lick of a hanging branch. The branches scrapped his scalp and tugged at his pants and shirt as he divided the mass of brush aside with both hands and pushed his pencil-thin body through, reaching a path on the other side. Once the freak broke through that barrier of vicious branches the rest of the way to the lake was easy-going. All he had to do was follow the abandoned train tracks north and he’d reached the clearing and one of a few entrances to the lake.
His solitude.
The freak walked on stiff legs, arms at his side and head straight forward. He walked not along the side of the tracks, but on them.
He heard a rustle to his right and stopped. His neck craned slowly toward the movement. Something, some small critter, eagerly moved about underneath some patch of long blades of grass. The freak strolled over; his face neutral, undetected of human emotion.
The small critter didn’t break from whatever it was doing. It kept on going. The little bastard was persistent, not fazed by the clap of thunder.
The freak kneeled over for further inspection; he hadn’t blinked in quite some time. The blades of grass parted slightly, giving him the first real look at what the persistent critter was. It unintentionally revealed its backside, its fluffy brown tail sticking high in the air and its rear bouncing from one side to another with its head to the ground.
The squirrel tugged at an acorn stuck in the ground. With the freak’s presence, the squirrel was determined to not let this human prevent it from unearthing the acorn.
However, the greed for the acorn, along with its unfamiliar trust for the human, caused its demise.
The freak lashed out his arm and seized the squirrel’s head fully in one hand. With his other hand, he scooped the squirrel’s upper body, trapping its arms in his palm. Its lower body squirmed and the terrified noise it released gave the freak great satisfaction.
He constricted his hand over the squirrel’s upper body as its lower body thrashed. The squirrel’s nails managed to scratch and tear lashes into the fabric of his long-sleeve shirt. His hand over the squirrel’s head also constricted, and he could feel its breathing fade and fade each passing second. The squirrel proved to not only be persistent with the acorn and too trusting of this strange human, but it proved to also be a fighter. A full minute passed before its entire body went limp. And even after its squirming, tiny and furry body went limp, the freak continued the suffocating hold another minute to secure its death sentence.
The freak held the dead squirrel cupped in both hands, staring down at it, as he walked to the clearing.
He found a spot fifteen feet from the water, knelt down, then gingerly let the squirrel’s corpse roll off his palms onto the grass. There was a sickly, gushy noise when its body fell onto the wet grass and into a puddle no more than an inch deep. For the first time that morning, a smile creased one corner of the freak’s face; a smile so tiny you wouldn’t notice unless you put your face close to his.
The rain continued to pour down relentlessly. There was another strike of lightning dozens of miles away, and another rumble of thunder.
The freak reached into his front pocket and pulled out a shard of glass, the edges so sharp it pricked the skin, producing a pinch of blood to drip down one finger. He admired the corpse, ran the back of his hand up and down its fur. In a sudden movement, he snatched the squirrel and lifted it. He stared into its dead, beady black eyes as the downpour matted his hair over his face and created multiple puddles of unbiased size around him.
He then got to work.
He pressed one sharp edge of the glass shard against the squirrel and sliced downward from neck to hip. Its blood mixed with the blood on his finger and the raindrops.
Thunder boomed.
The freak dropped to his knees where the lake water met the grass. His arms rested on his scrawny thighs and his head was bowed, concentrated. He stretched out, hands dipped in the lake water up to wrists so thin you’d wonder if he ate a meal in days. He scrubbed his hands thoroughly, the way a kitchen chef would before preparing food.
The bloodstains started to come off his skin, in a progressively slow process. He dug his fingernails in, scratching to the point of almost drawing more of his own blood. The puncture wound caused by the edge of the glass shard was no longer bleeding.
The freak’s breathing was labored. Under control. Yet his hands worked like a maniac, frantic. A vigorous scrubber. The stains were fading, and the loose blood floated away in the lake water.
Several feet away lay the squirrel. What remained. Its skeleton, aside from the head, was the only part on it that had fur still. It looked off into the woods. Its fur lay in a shredded pile not too far from its corpse. The squirrel’s skin next to the fur, in defectively thin slices.
The freak stared down at the water’s surface. Raindrops deform his features as they ripple around his reflection.
He stood and left. He walked on the abandoned train tracks with a blank stare, a stiff walk, head straight. He returned to his backyard. The back door was still unlocked.
Jack Carpenter enjoyed peeling things.
Mornings at the Carpenter house were a repetitious cycle: silverware flew across the kitchen, cabinets slammed, a single voice rising to maximum level made demands and nobody dared speak back to otherwise.
Nothing changed or was out of sync this morning.
“You awake, you little freak!” came the violent and impatient voice, shaking the early hours of another day, same as the thunder and rain did outside, followed by a heavy fist slammingon wood. Not a quick bang acting as an alarm clock, but loud pounds rattled the bedroom door on the hinges.
Jack pulled his hands free from the bathroom sink faucet’s scorching hot water, without any pain, his hands raw and red and scabby. Steam fogged the mirror, masking his facial features and the hideous creature inside.
The town’s freak.
He pictured his fake-father standing in the doorway, arms folded but hands still clenched into tight, hate-filled fists, staring at the unmade bed in an empty bedroom.
“Oh, boy. You better not have been in there an hour again, boy. I mean it!” There was a growl in his fake-father’s voice that Jack worried about hearing. A threatening tone he acknowledged but became used to over the dreadful years of his youth.
The bathroom door began rattling. And next came a thud, followed by another thud. And another. On the fourth thud, the loudest thud, his fake-father’s steel-toe boots kicked the door, amping Jack’s heartbeat. His arm spasmed in fear and swept away at the clipped-out yearbook photo of a beautiful red-headed girl. He had been straddled over the toilet bowl, jerking off, his penis a stub underneath a forest of pubs, when his fake-father came barreling down the hall.
“You get your little ass downstairs, ASAP, freak. Don’t make me barge in there and drag you into the kitchen by your chicken-shit neck. Move it!”
The footsteps fell away, moving down the hall, bouncing off the walls like inside of a chamber, of the crammed one-floor house.
In the kitchen his mother stood by the stove, finishing the bacon and eggs for breakfast. His fake-father sat at the head of the table reading the newspaper. Jack sat across from his younger sister, hands cupped between shaky legs and head down at the plate.
“About fucking time,” his fake-father said, slapping the newspaper shut. “Boy spends an hour in the bathroom every damn day...yanking his—”
“Please,” his mother said in her shrunken voice, always careful with how she approached, trying to avoid another slap across the face, another belt whip along the back, another near-death strangulation in the bedroom. “Can we have breakfast in peace, just this once?”
His fake-father had an unnerving stare that locked onto Jack, like Jack was some accidental creation.
Jack’s sister swung her feet under the table and hummed an unrecognizable tune.
“Something’s the matter with your son,” his fake-father snarled. “The freak never talks. He’s a fucking mute! You should’ve gotten him checked out...or had an abortion. Lord knows we don’t need any more freaks and loonies running around in this hellhole of a world.” He huffed and reverted his attention back to his newspaper.
Jack’s mother, her hair disheveled, always wearing her pajamas and robe, placed two plates in the center of the table, one with bacon and the other with eggs. She sniffed, walked back over to the stove and stared out the tiny window of their tiny home overlooking their tiny yard on their dead-end street in the part of town kid’s call Poverty Road. Jack, eyes drooped down at the plate, sensed his mother shaking her head. Tired of this life, sick of this man, yet too afraid to make a change this late in life, too terrified of speaking of her unhappiness that’d surely earn her another beating...and far worse. He suffered laying in bed with a pillow pressed over his ears having to listen to his mother cry and whimper in the next room over, the sound the headboard made slamming into the wall and the box spring creaking. Not knowing what to do, how to help.
Jack’s fake-father ripped at a piece of bacon, chewed.
“Speak, boy. Speak for once.”
But Jack remained silent. The toes of his sneakers planted, and his heels rose, now tapping impatiently at the air. His mother scrubbed the dishes. His sister hummed and hummed that stupid, incoherent melody.
“Stop picking on him,” his mother intervenes.
“Excuse me, woman?” Although his mother spoke in a murmur, Jack’s fake-father heard all.
Jack’s fake-father turned in his chair. His sister humming and eating her breakfast, familiar with the chaos about to ensue.
“No. Say it.”
Jack’s mother kept her mouth shut. And that didn’t sit well with his fake-father, who launched out the chair, the chair collapsing on the ground, jolting Jack but not affecting his humming sister, and got right in his mother’s face. Her body stiffened. He was broad shouldered and towered over her.
Jack’s fake-father whispered something inaudible, yet threatening, that created a whimper from his mother. Then he walked back over to the table, chucked his plate across the room. The glass plate shattered against the wall. Glass shards, food and utensils scatter on the floor.
“Clean it up,” Jack’s fake-father commanded, then stormed out the house.
The humming never quit. It irritated Jack. Instead of lashing out on his sister, he went over to help his mother pick up the mess.
She repeated for him to not worry about it, that she’d clean it up, for him to stop and go to school and just (...fucking stop!...) and smacked his hand away.
Jack pulled back like a hurt puppy, numb to the sting on his skin.
“Just go to school,” Jack’s mother said, defeated.
He left, and the humming of his sister followed.
Jack stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets and walked looking down at his feet the entire time, even as he crossed the road. The dead-end block of Jericho Road became a battleground of ankle-deep puddles, and the striving rain continued its downpour in an effort to drench him before he got to school.
He walked some blocks, taking the same route he’d always take to the high school. The rural, poorer section of town opened way to the lower-to middle-class homes, the suburban part of town.
Along the way he absentmindedly kicked rocks and twigs, hopped over puddles, his sneakers squishing over fallen, soggy leaves.
A few more blocks down.
Jack thought about the squirrel. How it squirmed and cried in his inhuman grip. Its arms and head trapped in his cupped hands. How, if not most of the times than sometimes, when he peeled things he imagined the thing he peeled being a person he hated. His fake-father. The bullies at school. Anyone in town, for that matter, really. All expect one person. The only person in town to ever show him any kind of sympathy, excluding his mom and sister. He closed his hand around the yearbook photo clipping of the beautiful redhead he kept stored in his front pocket...
“Jack? Hey, Jack!?”
He recognized the sound of the girl’s voice calling out to him.
She was the only person in town, maybe even the entire world, that called Jack by his first name and not the freak. Although, honestly, he freaked her out at times too. He had this vague, distant expression, like his body walked the earth while his soul rested in a purgatory state.
Jack halted in place, a straight line directionally in front of her. They’re about thirty feet apart. She can see his wrists beginning to twitch, and the rest of his body growing tense. He looked like he wanted to make eye contact with her but kept his head down. He was soaked from top to bottom. Except his dry hair underneath the jacket hood.
“Jack?” Amber called again. I’m heading to school now. Just waiting for my mom to grab her coffee. Want a ride, so you’re not more drenched by the time First Period starts?”
She wasn’t sure her mom would accept this strange boy in her car, but she felt like she could bargain if needed. Play a sympathy card or some bullshit.
Jack said nothing.
“Hey, Ja—”
With his hands still tucked deep into the front pockets of his pants, Jack Carpenter darted down the street, legs coming off the ground, knees to chest, his jacket hood flying off his head, leaving Amber bewildered.
Jack, no longer rushing in a frenzy away from Amber Evan’s house, back to walking his usual stiff walk, was up the street from Stoneside Township High, soaked worse. Not from the rain either. It happened a block before. He heard the revving engine of the car and the squeal the tires made on the slick pavement of the road yet kept his head down and didn’t react until the cold water tidal waved over his entire left side. Jack recognized who the car belonged to; it peeled off, screeching loudly as the driver slammed on the brakes and jerked the steering wheel sharply at the right turn, racing toward the high school.
The student body, and a couple of security guards stationed at the front deck in the main hallway, stopped midway in their conversations, stopped midway in their tracks, and looked Jack’s way. He stood by the entrance doors, dripping rainwater on the tiled floor. A handful of giggles. A bunch of whispered, inappropriate jokes. Some direct insults. All eyes on the freak of Stoneside Township.
Jack’s heart pounded ferociously in his chest. The muscles in his neck, arms, legs and jaw tightened. He tried to take a step, only his legs didn’t want to cooperate. Jack just stood there, eyes sucked behind their sockets, his body stiff as a plank. His hair clung to his face and his clothes, filthy and so old and cheap looking they’d probably dissolve off his skin any moment, hung off his skinny body. Standing by the lockers not too far away was the car’s owner: Jared. He stood along Eli, his right-hand man who rode shotgun; he stood by Jeff and Nicole and the tall and busty, yet beautiful. Taylor. And in his arms was Amber. She stared at him with sad eyes and gave the tiniest finger wave which had gone unnoticed by her boyfriend and their friends.
The moment his legs found the grounds to move, the hallway fell silent, and what echoed and bounced off the walls was the squelching his sneakers made with each step. Not a single student parted to allow him through. He bumped shoulders with several students. Half of them seemed to want him to touch them, give them a reason to strike or shove or further insult. One kid did; he whacked Jack right upside the back of his head. Jack didn’t flinch, hell he barely winched or blinked. He kept on walking with his eyes to the ground.
He stopped a little after the one kid whacked him. The back of his head pulsed momentarily. He lifted his head and met looks with Amber and her group of friends. His heart sped up, this time not from anxiety. When he looked into her eyes, he saw kindness still remained despite her boyfriend and his best friend openly mocking and teasing Jack. The center of his pants started to press forward.
“Hey, look!” Jared shouted. “The freak’s got a boner!”
An uproar of laughter erupted. All but Amber. She couldn’t bring herself to frown at Jared because she was too busy watching Jack as the mockery filled the hallway. The two security guards stood by, one with arms folded across his chest and the other with their hands knuckle deep in their front pockets. They chuckled.
Jack stumbled forward, the way someone with both their shoelaces tied together would, a loss of balance so they wouldn’t fall. His legs and mind crisscrossing with what move to make, and neither agreeing.
He spun to his right, jogged down the nearest stairwell. Nearly slipped down the steps but grabbed onto the handrail for safety as the laughter faded the further down the ground-floor hallway he ran.
Last period concluded. Students piled into the halls and rushed out the building, some to get an early jump on their studies, some to sit in front of their computers playing video games all night and ignoring their homework or school projects; others to walk their crushes home or to the bus stop up the street.
Jack kept his head down as he shuffled down the hall, both of his thumbs hooked to the bottom of the book bag straps. He caught an elbow as a group of jocks stampede by. The elbow struck him in the side, and he tumbled into the lockers.
“Watch out, freak!” one jock laughed. His buddies joined in.
Jack pushed off the locker, his skin peeling off the metal. He couldn’t see the red mark on his cheek from the impact or feel its sting it would anyone else. The corners of his vision began to darken. Before he was able to succumb to the dark desires, those impulses of torturing another living thing, like the animals, the group of jocks were gone, swinging open the double doors to the outside and hidden among the crowd of students and faculty.
“Are you alright?” asked a sweet, kind and caring voice behind him.
The darkened corners faded, and the world returned to its natural color. The girl’s face came into view. Amber looked concerned, probably the most concerned look he’d ever been given by anyone in Stoneside Township for a complete outcast. Even nerds had more popularity than him, even if just by a smidge. If someone in town had zero friends, it equated to exactly one more than Jack had. Ever.
Amber stood by the lockers with her group: Taylor, Nicole, Jeff,Jared and Eli. The hallway grew less crowded as more students and faculty dispersed outside. Jared and Eli snickered. So did Jeff but not as much. Nicole noticed, nudged him with an elbow and his face reduced to a neutral, yet semi-embarrassed look.
“What a freak,” Jared commented.
Eli followed up with: “For real; this Nemo finned peckerwood has been acting more strange than usual lately.”
The boys chuckled so hard their shoulders leapt up and down.
“Quit picking on him!” Amber scolded Jared and Eli, her red hair snapping to either side, followed with an immediate glare.“You guys are such—”
Amber’s words fizzled as Jack’s scrawny legs started to carry him forward. He was heading for the double doors, toward the parking lot, where he’d cut through a few blocks of side streets until he reached the woods, and then he’d take the woods all the way around the perimeter of town to his house. Jack sprinted with flailing arms. He shoulder-tackled the door while forcing the metal bar inward.
He forcefully squeezed through a rush of students waiting on the bus, their parents or friends.
A few minutes later, Jack entered the woods. Over the years it became his own personal domain. He knew his way around the woods better than the streets of Stoneside Township. He maneuvered through trails and brush with the ease of a skilled woodsman. There was solace in the woods, in nature, then at home with his timid mother, oblivious sister and fake-father, or the bullies at school.
Jack hunted for small game. And when he found a chipmunk, he killed it and peeled its skin.
The damn cat outside woke Jack in the middle of the night from a dreamless sleep. He tossed the blanket aside, swung his legs over the edge and pulled back the worn and torn window curtain. The moonlight, the main source of light aside from the dim streetlamps in the front of the house, allowed him a clean visual of the back yard. A backyard no bigger than the size of two full-sized bedrooms. The grass was dry, browning in most parts, dying with the looming of a harsh winter.
A bundle of leaves paraded by. The wind howled.
Jack wrapped himself back into his blankets, his back facing the window. He fell asleep upon his head hitting the stiff pillow. If the damn cat still meowed outside and rummaged through the trash cans in the morning, he promised to kill it.
A strange stench grew stronger on the second-floor hallway of Stoneside Township High the following day. The maintenance crew couldn’t find the source or location.
Jack stared out the classroom window, watching a gentle rain fall on the glass pane. Mrs. Wilmot, the Fourth Period science teacher, was in the process of a PowerPoint presentation on a biology topic that Jack’s paid vitally no attention to all week. Hell, all year. Every now and again a word or sentence she said slipped into his consciousness, but mostly her voice sounded muffled like she taught class behind another wall, drowned out by the rain.
Mrs. Wilmot’s science classroom, room 232, located on the second floor of the building, overlooked the front entrance. A security guard hung in the parking lot, in a raincoat and hat. Across the street, a man tugged his excited dog away from the miniature pool created by the rain at the sewer grate. No cars drove down the road. The security guard bumped into and confronted two wandering students.
As he watched, Jack shredded a pink rubber eraser with a sharp shard of glass he discovered on the school grounds by the dumpsters during lunch. Eraser debris littered his desk.
Something soft bounced off Jack’s temple.
Unblinking, Jack turned right. Two rows over and three seats back, Jared and Eli silently howled with laughter. Jared held a paper ball torn from his notebook. He wore a black backwards hat nulled of any logo, a black leather jacket, zipped open to reveal a plain white T-shirt; the facial hair above his lip and on his chin had started growing in last year. Jared thought he was cool.
Jack stared at them so long that Jared and Eli stopped laughing and frowned. Jack’s eyes burned and yearned for moisture, but he did not blink.
“Why are you staring at me, freak!?” Jared said loud enough to interrupt Mrs. Wilmot from her lesson and have the entire class turn their focus between Jared and Jack.
“Jared...what’s the problem?” Mrs. Wilmot asked. She was one of the sweetest teachers in Stoneside Township High. Mr. Morgan of American History got tomato red when interrupted during class, especially due to a random outburst. Not Mrs. Wilmot. She spoke softly and respectfully, something she’d carried over from her youth.
Jared pointed toward Jack.
“The freak keeps staring our way,” he said. Students giggled sheepishly at the freak name-calling. “I don’t like that.”
“Me either,” Eli followed along. Eli wore the school team’sbaseball jersey religiously, like he believed baseball was the only sport in the world, like the baseball season started and never ended.
“Jack?” Mrs. Wilmot said.
Jack didn’t lift his gaze off Jared. He hadn’t forgotten when Jared humiliated him worse than ever at the start of the school year, during gym class when they had to swim laps. Jared snuck up behind Jack, yanked his pants down to his ankles and had the entire class, even the teacher, laughing. Eli shoved him into the deep end. Jack flailed for breath and survival, until their gym teacher broke from his own mockery and helped Jack out of the pool. Jared and Eli got suspended for two weeks. Their gym teacher was fired on the spot even with Jared and Eli at his defense.
“Jack? What’s the issue?”
“The freak”—more giggles—“ain’t gonna speak.”
“Jared, please quit it with the name-calling.”
“Sorry, Mrs. W. My sincere apologies. I—”
The rest of the conversation dialed out from the ringing in Jack’s ears. The corners of his eyes crusted from dryness, and even still he was unprovoked to blink.
Jack came to. Mrs. Wilmot stood over him. Now he blinked. Most of the class already had piled out, dismissed for next period, the foreign stench in the hallway unbearable, making most cover their noses and some gag. The students who were slowly exiting the classroom tried to hold out long enough to see what’d happen in the next thirty seconds or so. Once Jared and Eli left, both staring Jack down hard, the remaining students headed to their next class, seemingly disappointed nothing interesting happened.
“Jack, listen, we need to discuss this behavior in the principal’s office—”
Jack sprung out of his seat. Mrs. Wilmot gasped, backstepping into a desk with a hand over her mouth and one hand gripping the edge of the desk. He walked out of the classroom and headed for the locker with his face down to the ground, leaving Mrs. Wilmot anxious and startled.
“Jack Carpenter, report to the principal’s office immediately.”
Jack, enroute to his locker on the west side of the building on the second floor, ignored the principal’s call over the PA system.
He turned the corner to the hallway, stopped abruptly at the handful of maintenance workers and two security guards standing in front of his locker. The broken lock lay on the ground. One of the security guards held a pair of bolt cutters, while the other pinched her nose tightly. One maintenance worker held open a garbage bag for the other as the other reached sickly into Jack’s locker. The sight of the hairless and near-skinless animal corpse caused the third maintenance worker to grip their gut and cover their mouth, cheeks puffed and ready to upchuck either on the ground or in the garbage bag before permanently disposing of the animal’s corpse.
Jack twisted on his toes and started making his way back the way he came when one of the security guards called out to him.
“Hey, kid! Kid, is this your locker?” The security guard pointed at Jack’s locker. “Kid, come here, I’m talking to you.”
Jack fled down the hallway in a matter of seconds. StonesideTownship High’s star track star would have been impressed had he seen Jack’s speed, in small part thanks to leaving his backpack, and the added weight from textbooks and notebooks, back in Mrs. Wilmot’s classroom. He heard the footfalls of the security guard’s boots, the one wielding the bolt cutter, echoing behind him. He hurried down the stairs and burst out the side entrance, met directly with the freezing rain, soaking his floppy hair, his sneakers and socks, and his jacket he kept on throughout the morning.
A sense of urgency and panic overcame Jack back inside the building. Some subliminal message triggered in his brain to get away, to get far away. He didn’t understand it, the same way he didn’t understand a lot of things, things he only reacted to and did without moral reasoning. How primitive mammals behave. A person without an internal monologue.
Jack’s arms pumped at his sides.
A whistle screeched.
Jack dared a glance over his shoulder; the parking lot security guard came up behind him. And like the previous security guards inside the building, Jack ran too fast and too far ahead, the parking lot security guard quit chasing and pulled back. He pulled the radio off his belt, brought it to his mouth, but Jack couldn’t hear because he was now far off school grounds.
He returned to the safe haven of the woods where he felt he truly belonged.
Hours later, long after the rainstorm settled and the sun barely inched from behind gray clouds, Jack’s clothes began drying. When first entering the woods, Jack muddied the cuffs of his pants legs and his sneakers squished with each step as he walked along the trails. At the lake, he stood at the edge and stared off at the water and trees on the other side; the rain poured for a period of time, hitting the surface of the water like frozen missiles. Then the rain dwindled to a drizzle before Jack—still standing on the edge of the grass—went under a tree and sat with his back against the bark and his arms resting on knees pulled up to his chest.
Jack watched the grass blades sway in the moderate wind. He waited...unsure of what. Then he knew once he heard the group of voices emerge from the clearing.
It was his last day.
Amber declined the blunt Jared passed her way.
“Don’t be a prude,” he said.
“I’m not. I’m just not in the mood to get stoned today.”
Eli skipped her turn and took the blunt from Jared. “That just means more for us then, bro,” he said and took two hits before passing it along to Taylor.
Nicole and Jeff opted not to hang out after school today, even though the weather cleared around Seventh Period. Jared and Eli tag teamed them, bashed them for not joining in hopes it’d change their minds.
Amber squeezed her hands under her armpits, and shivered. Jared offered to hug her warm a mile back; she declined because they weren’t steady yet and because he’d been an intolerable dick all day, annoying her more than usual.
She looked down at the ground, so the wind tackled her eyes less and noticed foot tracks in the mud filled with rainwater.
“Guess we’re not the only ones heading for the lake today,” Amber said just to break the sudden silence.
They were about a hundred yards from the clearing and the lake.
Jared grunted; he could care less. Amber rolled her eyes at the jerk-off.
Fifteen yards before the clearing, Taylor stepped in front of Jared and Eli with her phone raised high in the air. She was the tallest girl in the group, at 5’11, an inch taller than Jared and three shorter than Eli. She made a peace sign with her free hand, putting her fingers close to her lips and pursing her lips into a duck face. Jared and Eli each struck a separate pose: Jared manning the blunt and Eli holding up a fist. In the background, Amber stared at the camera, looking chilly and uninterested in spending her free time in the woods.
“I’ll post it on Facebook later,” Taylor said since the service out here stunk.
The wind pushed Amber’s hair around. She blew some hair out away from her lips and spat to the side. When they emerged from the clearing, she looked up and halted.
“Amber?” Eli whistled to grab her attention.
Jared and Eli followed where she looked. They frowned.
The freak, as he was known throughout town, stood stiff as a statue under a tree, watching them.
“This fucking little...” Jared began to say only to uncharacteristically stop himself.
“Freak,” Eli finished off.
“Uhm, why’s he staring at us like that?” Taylor asked.
“Freak did the same thing back in Mrs. W’s class earlier,” Jared said. He called out. “Hey, dipshit! You like killing animals and stuffing them in your locker, don’t you?”
“Come on, Jared,” Amber said, “we don’t know the truth to make that assumption.”
“Don’t defend this little shit,” Jared snarled. Amber stayed quiet. “Thought so.” He leaned in and whispered, “There’s no place in this town for people who’ll take this freak’s side. Please, don’t be that person, Amber.” He went to place her chin between his thumb and index finger, but she shrugged him away.
Eli said, “We all know this fucker’s the one who left that dead cat in the school locker.”
“I agree,” Taylor said. She always agreed with anything Eli said, did and believed in. And yet, he still wouldn’t screw her brains out like how she described in full detail to Amber and Nicole how she wanted it from Eli when he’d take her V-card, discarding the first three guys she’d slept with, telling Amber and Nicole the absurd notion of how they were there for practice and nothing meaningful.
Jared stepped several feet forward with Eli, who’d finishing the last bit of the blunt, in tow. Taylor stayed behind next to Amber.
“Will you for once in your meaningless and pathetic life speak, you fucking freak of nature?” Jared’s voice echoed.
Jack stood his ground like a sinister being.
Amber’s soft spot for Jack Carpenter, right now, however, faded. His stance and erased facial expression seemed outright paranormal. It frightened her.
Jared and Eli stopped side by side. Whatever they said to each other Amber couldn’t hear. Their mouths moved and their voices were indistinctive.
Taylor wrapped her fingers around Amber’s arm.
“Hey, guys,” Taylor started to say, “maybe we should just leave. Y’know, go downtown to the arcade or hang in the park. We can even go back to my place and—”
Jared snapped back at her. “Give it a rest already!”
A shouting match ensued between the four friends. None were winning or in control of the argument.
“Whoa whoa whoa WHOA!” Eli hollered.
The others clamped their mouths shut.
“What?” Jared then said with irritation.
“Check it out.” Eli nodded toward the tree where they spotted the freak.
“Where’d the freak scurry off to?” Jared darted his head from left to right.
“He couldn’t have gotten too far,” Eli said. “I’ll check this way;you check that way?”
Eli started wandering off.
Amber grabbed Jared by the arm and twirled him around. “What are you two planning on doing to him?”
“We’re just gonna show the freak a lesson. Staring at people, stuffing dead animals in a locker. Nah. It doesn’t sit well with us.”
“No! You two torment him every single day and I won’t keep putting up with it.”
Jared closed in on her face. “Stop me,” he said coldly, and gooseflesh crawled north of Amber’s spine.
“Shit!” Eli cried out.
The three turned around. Jack snuck through the woods, hidden,and chose to strike when one of their own was alone. For a small, punny kid, he managed to bounce on a much bigger Eli and tackled him to the wet grass with the ease of a linebacker.
Jack’s fists came in fast and efficient blows. Eli squirmed, kicking his feet and trying to break free of the freak’s wrath. One punch sent Eli’s head back and bouncing off the ground. By the time Jared rushed over and yanked Jack off his friend, tossing the freak to the side without draining any energy, Eli’s nose and upper lip was covered in fresh blood. He tried to speak but his words were indecipherable. He held his side. They hadn’t seen the freak strike Eli’s side.
By the time Amber reached the boys, blood-soaked Eli’s hands.
“Did the fucker stab you?” Jared asked with tear-filled eyes and hatred and anger.
Eli nodded, wincing in pain.
Amber, Jared and Taylor looked toward Jack. He stood with his arms at his sides, holding a sharp shard of glass in his right hand, the tip doused in blood and dripping onto the grass.
Amber noticed blood dripping off his palm and knuckles. She wondered if Jack felt the sharp, broken edges piercing into his flesh, or if it was adrenaline preventing him from feeling any pain.
Taylor cried, knelt over Eli with a hand under his head. “Oh my God! Shhh, Eli. Don’t try to speak. I’m calling 9-1-1 now! Just don’t talk and hold on.” Her whole body shook as she tried dialing, forgetting there wasn’t a signal this far out.
A blood bubble swelled out of Eli’s mouth and burst.
Jack let the bloody shard of glass drop.
Amber turned away from the scene, afraid to God what Jared was about to do to Jack and scared for Eli’s life.
Taylor hyperventilated. Amber tried and failed to calm her friend down.
Jared picked up the shard of glass and chased after Jack, who had already disappeared into the woods.
“JARED!” Amber called out. “DON’T!”
He vanishes from view. She turned back toward Taylor. Eli struggled, the heels of his sneakers digging into the ground.
“I have to go—”
“No, no don’t leave me here alone,” Taylor begged and sobbed.
“—I have to make sure Jared doesn’t hurt Jack or get himself hurt.”
“Have you not seen what that freak did to Eli!?” A glimpse of rage replaced Taylor’s fear and sadness.
“That’s why I have to make sure Jared doesn’t hurt Jack.” Amber gave Taylor a determined look. “If Jared does anything to Jack...We don’t need him getting arrested or severely hurt either. Stay with Eli. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Taylor was halfway through saying her name when Amber chased after Jared through the woods.
Some branches scraped her cheek, producing a tiny droplet of blood. Amber wasn’t too familiar with the layout of the woods; she went off memory, mainly following the direction Jared headed in. He had veered off in another direction; the trail was narrower than the one they took to get to the lake.
She eventually came out into a clearing where abandoned train tracks stretch outward in both directions. Amber placed a hand on her forehead, unsure which way to go, afraid she’d chosenwrong and headed further away from Jared.
With a stroke of luck, Jared’s voice traveled in the air. He cussed at Jack, threatening to kill him. Her throat dried. She hesitated at first, then her feet started moving and she followed his voice.
She thought: Please, Jared, don’t lay a hand on him, please. Be safe.
“Jared!” she shouted at the top of her lungs, praying he’d hear her.
Amber remembered this street. Jericho Road: or as the kids around town called it, Poverty Street. It wasn’t a part of town she ever visited. She’d passed by it a few times in her life.
Her chest stung from the cold, so Amber quit running and bent over to catch wind.
She spotted Jared standing on the sidewalk, in front of a house halfway down the block. She tugged at his leather jacket. Jared, in full fight mode, turned and raised his fist. She recoiled, tossed her hands in front of her face. He pulled back his swing.
“Dammit, Amber. Don’t do that. I could’ve hurt you.”
“Don’t,” she said. “Let’s just let the sheriff handle this. Please.”
“No. Fuck that.”
“Jared! We’re all witnesses to what that freak’s done. Eli needs us. I—we—don’t even know if he’s...”
Amber stalled, nervous about Eli’s health.
“Exactly the reason why I’m gonna barge in there and yank that fucker outside and beat the living shit outta him in his own front yard.”
“What about his parents?”
“They can watch. I don’t care.”
“Well, I do.”
“And that’s your problem. You always had a soft spot for the freak...and look!”
“Don’t raise your voice at me.”
“I’m done talking.”
Amber reached for his jacket sleeve again, but he moved away before she touched the leather.
Jared elbowed the front door, shouting at Jack and continuing with the threats. With the side of his fist, he banged and banged and banged until a splinter jabbed his skin.
“Jared,” she hissed.
“Open the fucking door!”
Jared stepped back and rammed his foot under the doorknob. The door exploded open. He rushed inside.
Amber followed him and bumped into his back in the front hall. He said nothing. The house was silent and still. A terrible odor consumed the residence. Both covered their noses with the inside part of their elbow.
“How many animals did this freak mutilate?” Jared said, more in general than to her or himself.
She walked close behind him as he made his way down the hall to the kitchen. The odor was strongest in the kitchen. Death, that’s what Amber associated the smell as.
Amber gagged, her eyes watered from the smell, and she pulled away not even fully in the kitchen. The sight was unreal: at the table sat three bodies, a mom, a dad and a younger sister. Most of their skin had been peeled off, revealing flesh and bone and skeletal jaws. They wore birthday hats on their heads. Paper plates and forks in front of them. The flavor of the birthday cake on the center of the table was unrecognizable. A swarm of flies buzzed around the cake and the bodies.
Jared pulled her into his arms and squeezed her tightly.
“What the actual fuck...” he said.
Amber spewed vomit on the floor, choking, and Jared patted her back until she was done. Then she let out a scream.
Eli and Taylor were found by the lake, and he was brought to Stoneside Township Memorial. His condition was unclear. Taylor stayed by his hospital bed.
Sheriff William Hosmer and all the deputies in town gathered around the Carpenter house. They searched inside and out. A group searched the woods. Others interviewed the neighbors. None were aware about the murders on their own street. Like most residents in Stoneside Township, none were friends with any of the Carpenters, who’ve isolated and disassociated themselves with everyone in town. Residence on Jericho Road mentioned that for the last three weeks things at the Carpenter residence had been oddly quiet. Nobody smelled the terrible decay until now.
Amber and Jared sat on the curb, speaking to the sheriff’s deputy.
“How long were they dead for?” Jared asked.
“Hard to say until the coroner determines the cause and time of their death. From the looks of it...I’d say a few weeks.”
Ten minutes later, Sheriff Hosmer approached them.
“Where is he? Where’s the freak?” Amber insisted on knowing.
Sheriff Hosmer gave them an apologetic look, sighed, and said, “Sorry. We don’t know.”

Ryan Cecere lives in Pennsylvania with his girlfriend and their cat Willow.