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By Julie Hockley
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Julie Hockley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneForever Freakish
By the time the instructor called time, I had already meticulously gone over my exam paper five times. It must have been at least two hundred degrees in that auditorium, like the school needed to make sure that absolutely no one would be spared the sweat of exam week. The crevasse, dug into the back of my neck by the steady stream of sweat, was proof that I too hadn't been spared.
The few students that lagged behind left the stifling auditorium. Callister University was not an Ivy League school. It had probably never even been in the running for a top one hundred, top one thousand, any list of any schools in the country. But I still needed to maintain an A average to keep my full scholarship. So I took an extra second to check the dotted line at the right hand corner of my paper, on the off chance that Professor Vernon was one of those profs who still gave students an extra point just for spelling their names correctly. Emily Sheppard. My name was spelled right, though I still cringed, just a little.
Then I put my pencil down, turned my exam paper over, and had to let a very small sigh escape me. At the very least, I had survived one year of college, which meant that I was temporarily free of cramming for exams, of listening to endless lectures ... school was such a great way to kill time. I would miss that.
I rushed back to the house and stepped into complete chaos—then again, when you share a three-bedroom hole with six other roommates, everyday is chaotic. You just learn to measure in degrees of chaos. In our house, chaos ranged anywhere from the morning run through the obstacle course of empty beer cases to get into the one bathroom ... to keep your head down, and hope that nothing with sharp edges was within reach of the couch. Making it out the door in time for your next class was a challenge, to say the least.
Today was in the range of controlled anarchy. All of my roommates were moving out for the summer. There were hampers and garbage bags bunched at the door, most of them filled to the brim with dirty laundry—a common end-of-term gift for the parents. Everything was being packed—thrown really—into whatever container they could find, while their parents were shouting orders, trying to get out of our hole as quickly as possible.
Everyone who could escape Callister did so at their earliest opportunity. I was the only one of my roommates who wasn't going home for the summer break. Burt and Isabelle, my parents, were spending the summer in France, where Isabelle was born and over-bred. Europe was a regular retreat for the Sheppard family. I had put an end to that too—even a hot summer in a dead city was better than that torture.
My roommates were rushed with their good-byes and have a great summer. And then they were gone, and I was left standing in the living room, alone with the abandoned school books and empty pizza boxes.
The house had been dubbed by some—mostly of the parental origin—a dump. I loved it. New and interesting stains appeared on the living room carpet, unrecognizable smells emanated from the basement, the kitchen housed a family of ants, the sole bathroom with the tub that often doubled as a beer bucket was booby trapped with rotting plywood. These were but a few of the marvels of this student housing. And I would have it all to myself for four glorious months.
I basked in silence for a few minutes more and then ran upstairs to my bedroom before I ran out of daylight.
My bedroom was the one at the end of the hall. Except that it wasn't really a bedroom, but a broom closet that had been converted into a "rentable" space. In other words, if it was big enough for a semi-grown person to lay in, the landlord could charge student rent for it. It had no windows, no lights, no electrical outlets, and a curtain hung in place of a door because my single bed took up all of the floor space. I'd had to run a fire-hazard electrical cord from one of my roommates' room into mine just to be able to plug in a lamp and an alarm clock.
What my room lacked in square footage it made up in character. My doll-sized bed, squeezed between three walls, stood on three-foot high stilts made of milk crates that had been secretly borrowed from the corner store. My clothes, my shoes, and my schoolbooks were stacked in Rubbermaid bins under the bed, and two-dollar Van Goghs hid most of the holes in the walls. The best part: it only cost me a hundred bucks a month—all inclusive.
I closed the curtain door, switched my jeans for sweatpants and ran back down the stairs.
After hiding the key under the front mat, I hit the ground running, literally, and zipped down the streets. I dodged people and the heaps of garbage that were piling up on the sidewalks-remnants of all the students who were gradually abandoning the city. By this time tomorrow, the city would be bare of the students that gave it life, the heaps would have been well looted, and only the real garbage would remain.
This part of Callister was considered the slum of the city—a stark contrast to the manicured lawns I had grown up with. What had been—probably a million years ago—a cute, middleclass neighborhood was now another dilapidated, though nicely affordable, sore spot on the city's good standing. With its proximity to the university, it accommodated this weird mix of college students, underprivileged families, and drug dealers. It had a certain charm—most of the houses were small, wartime wooden homes built about three feet from the street and barely two feet apart from each other.
I was sure that the neighborhood must have been pretty at some point. Now most of the paint was chipping away. Multicolored layers started peering through spots as if the houses bared the scars left by the previous owners before being abandoned for good.
I hiked up one of the busier drags—my least favorite part of the run. Too many cars were driving by with practically everyone turning their eyes in my direction, like this was the first time they had ever seen someone run. I told myself that it was because of where I was—in this city, someone who ran was usually running away from something, like the cops or the barrel of a shopkeeper's gun.
But somehow I knew it had nothing to do with the bad neighborhood, and everything to do with me—I was a beacon for curious stares. My hair was the color of spaghetti sauce. Not the expensive, gourmet kind, but the kind that was usually in a can, usually sold in bulk, and mostly made of carrots. And to say that I was pale was greatly fallacious. The reddish-brown freckles that speckled every inch of my ghostly skin were enough color for my taste. To top it off, I was skinny. Not the "you-should-be-a-model" type of skinny—but the bony, awkward kind of skeletal. I held out hope that I would someday add something, anything, to my bones, but given that I was still my skinny mother's carbon copy, hope faded with every year that passed.
I wasn't paranoid ... but still, I turned up the sound on my Walkman. It's easier to ignore people's stares when you've got music blasting in your ears. Then I ran up the hill and took a right into an almost hidden alley.
Behind two brick buildings there was a small patch of trees that towered over the laneway, shedding a carpet of little white beans all over the street. It was one of the few areas in the ghetto that had anything green still living. I veered onto the pathway that led through the cemetery. Like the rest of the neighborhood, the cemetery had been left neglected, with weeds growing everywhere—around, and within the slow cracks of tombstones. Street-gang graffiti, spray-painted art covered almost every surface of the graveyard, including some of the stones.
It was among the broken beer bottles, cigarette butts, and fast-food wrappers that stood the only tombstone that had been maintained by the caretaker—he must have been paid handsomely by my parents to keep the weeds and garbage away from my brother Bill's grave. I ran this same route almost every day after school. Some days I would stop and sit to talk to Bill or just stare at the head of his stone.
Today I kept running, trying to make the most out of the lingering daylight, because I was running late, because a graveyard was definitely not where I wanted to be after dark. I had watched too many movies for that.
The pathway snaked the cemetery and eventually led through a fence of overgrowth and trees. I ran into the opening of the field of weeds and into the projects. The projects were a city within the city, a bouquet of high-rise public-housing apartment buildings built by the good people of Callister. What they really were was ugly and, as far as I could tell, barely habitable. They were built quite hastily by the city in the middle of a large piece of land—an unusually large, vacant, removed, industrial piece of land. The city's plan was to keep the poor off the streets, or away and out of sight from the rest of the city. Entering the projects was like entering another world.
While the cemetery had been virtually deserted, the field around the buildings was veiled with people. It had been the first really warm day of the year. The sun was shining, and the city—even the city within the city—was suddenly coming out of hibernation. Hard-up kids played and screamed in the tall grass, families were grouped around tiny barbeques, rap music was blaring, and foot traffic congested the walkways. So I made my way through the crowd, weaving in and out of the foot traffic to the beat of my breath and Bob Marley on my headphones.
Contrary to one of my roommate's theory, I wasn't trying to be retro with my ancient Walkman. I'd discovered it in our basement when we first moved into the house. It was free, and free was all I could afford. Yes, the Bob Marley tape that was already in there had melted into the Walkman. And yes, I was forced to listen to the same tape over and over again. But it didn't matter—it was all I needed to quiet the voice in my head long enough to put one foot in front of the other without tripping.
But when I ran through the crowd today, I started to realize that something was different, wrong somehow. People were staring at me, maybe even more than usual. I stared ahead and tried to keep my mind on my pace, on my breath, away from my delusions.
Except that I wasn't being paranoid—people were definitely staring. And then they were moving. Away from me. Parting to the sides as I ran past, like the sea in that book—though nothing about this felt biblical. Was there something on my face? I brought my hand to my sweaty face, as coolly as I could, quickly passing my fingers over my skin. As far as I could detect, there were no nose bleeds or anything else that was abnormal—abnormal for me. That was when I noticed a lady in front of me a few yards away. The fact that she was wearing a yellow hat, and had a plastic yellow purse made me notice her more than the fact that she was looking right at me. She was mouthing something, but all I could hear was Bob's voice.
Before I could grasp that she was telling me to watch out, a large black shadow had sped to me. I never had time to react. Something hard and heavy had rammed into me from behind, and I was brought down to the ground.
I came crashing, face-first, into the pebbled walkway with barely enough time to pull my hands out in front of me to break some of my fall. And that was where I laid—pinned. Then something bounced off my back, and I felt something hot, wet and sticky on my face. It wasn't blood.
Glimpsing up, dazed, I saw the cow-sized head of a dog too close to my face, very big teeth, leash hanging freely from its neck. I heard a winded voice but I didn't think that I could respond. Even if I could, I wouldn't—afraid the dog's tongue would slip into my mouth if I tried to open it to speak. A man had come to grab the massive beast's leash and pulled it away from my now-licked-clean face. I felt a strong hand on my arm, and I was tugged up to my shaky feet.
While I came back to life, I investigated my hands. They were pretty scraped up. And though I couldn't see any tears in my sweatpants, I knew that I would have plum-sized bruises on my kneecaps tomorrow. On the ground I saw my prized Walkman, shattered to pieces all the way down the walkway. I pulled the now useless earphones away from my ears and let them drop to the ground.
"I'm okay," I finally answered, though I wasn't sure if anyone had asked me.
Glancing up, facing the westerly setting sun, I brought my hand to my forehead to rim my eyes from the blinding light. What I could see was the dog's owner, the shadow of a boy or a man in a gray sweater. He was tall, and his face was hidden by the darkness of his gray hood and the ball cap that was pulled down to his eyebrows.
We stood there, studying each other like boxers do after they step into the ring.
I was waiting for what would generally come next after a dog attack, like an apology or an offer to get my clothes dry-cleaned or his lawyer's name so that our lawyers could connect easily when I filed a lawsuit.
But the boy remained silent, fingering his watch and swiftly scanning the scene before returning his darkened eyes to me.
"I'm Emily." I extended a hand out and moved in closer to see his face. Names, I thought, were a good start. But he stepped back and glanced down.
"Your shoelace is untied," he told me, almost angrily.
I pulled my hand back, feeling a little like a moron, and followed his gaze to my feet.
I crouched down to tie my shoelace; this provoked the dog to bark and lunge to the end of its leash. I couldn't tell if it was happy or angry. It didn't matter—I jumped back, fell on my behind, wondered how long it would take before the leash snapped and the dog was back on me again.
"He's not going to hurt you." The owner had said this with irritation—like he was upset with my fear of the beast that had attacked me a few seconds before.
I huffed and tugged on my thread of a shoelace—of course, it snapped.
"You need new shoes," he uneasily commented again.
"My shoes were fine till your dog used me as a springboard."
While I struggled to tie what was left of my shoelace into a knot and try to make sense of this guy's social awkwardness, I glared up and watched as his hands clenched into a fist and his shadowed jaw tightened. We were interrupted before the hairs on my arms had time to fully stiffen.
"Hey, girl," said a voice behind me. "Think you dropped this."
I came to my feet and spun around. A man in a baggy tracksuit handed me my Bob Marley tape: it had finally dislodged itself from my Walkman, taking pieces of the Walkman with it. I knew enough about the local gang colors and teardrop tattoos that this man was showing off to know that I should stay as far away as possible. It was clear to me that I was slowly being surrounded, outnumbered.
"Thanks," I mumbled.
"What is this thing anyway?" he asked me.
When I extended my hand to meet his and quickly grab the tape, the Rottweiler went wild again, barking, growling, almost snapping its leash.
I came to be very still.
The gangbanger stepped back, but his frightened gaze was not directed to the hostile dog, but to the dog's owner. "Sorry man," he stuttered, taking a few short steps back before turning around. I watched him leave and noticed that everyone around us was doing their best to avoid looking in our direction. Accidents, like holes in the ground, usually attract crowds of gawkers and do-gooders—don't they? Yet no one else had dared to come near us.
Perturbed, I turned back to the boy and confirmed that he looked quite plain—no signs of any gang affiliations. Though his dog had calmed down again, the boy holding the leash looked as if he were about to spontaneously combust. When he spoke, I realized it was me that he was angry with.
"You really shouldn't be running by yourself in this neighborhood. It's a really stupid thing to do."
With this revelation, I took a moment, and waited for further enlightenment.
But nothing else came from him.
"Are you serious?" I probed after a few seconds.
He stayed silently erect.
I lashed out. "Must I remind you that your dog attacked me and your dog broke my Walkman? You're not seriously blaming this on me?"
Excerpted from Crow's Row by Julie Hockley Copyright © 2011 by Julie Hockley. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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