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It was the year I discovered anger.
I thought I knew all about it. Everyone gets mad, right? You stub your toe or burn your finger. You yell. Maybe you hit something. It flashes through you like lightning, then it's gone.
If that's your idea of anger, congratulations. You're one of the lucky ones.
I'm talking about a different kind of anger. This kind moves in on you. It takes root in the basement — pulsing, growing, the color of a bruise. You don't even know it's there. Then one day the floor heaves and it bursts out, pinning you to the wall, overwhelming you. And there's nothing you can do.
For me, that day came last fall. My mom and I had moved from our neighborhood outside Baltimore to an old house downtown. We didn't want to move, but my dad had had other ideas, most of them involving a woman named Gretchen, someone he worked with. Gretchen moved to New York, and so did he. Just like that. Don't get me started.
So, what do you do when you find out you'll be living on just one salary? You pack up your stuff. You say good-bye to your friends. You get in the car and drive off. You don't look back.
We moved downtown to be near my mom's work. She's a librarian at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, which is a fancy name for the Baltimore public library. She threw herself into her job. I threw myself into a new school, the way you might wad up a sheet of paper and toss it into the trash. Eighth grade with a bunch of strangers. New people to meet. New things to learn. Wake me when it's over.
The school was actually two schools. Marshall High was a big old brick building across from a row of businesses and deserted factories. Next door was my school, Marshall Middle, an even older building. Besides the name, we shared a football team, a mascot, and a band that my mom had made me join, saying it would be a good way to meet people. Even in the band, though, I mostly kept to myself. I figured I could make friends later if I felt like it.
I mostly just wandered from class to class, a short, skinny, thirteen-year-old kid with dark hair and bright eyes. If you talked to me, I might nod, or maybe I'd just keep moving.
My mom and I lived close to school, so I would walk home. That day she had asked me to stop by Lexington Market to pick up something for dinner. It was this famous old market with hundreds of stalls that had every kind of food you could imagine. Of course, my mom knew that if I was picking, there was just one choice: crab cakes from Faidley's, Baltimore's finest.
I bought the crab cakes, picked out a candy bar, and was heading home when I heard a voice.
I turned around. It was Jake Bragg, a kid who had appointed himself mayor of eighth grade. Jake and his buddies hung around outside campus, smoking and telling stories about their latest exploits with bad cops and bad girls, stories that took place in an imaginary land where they weren't idiots. Jake had introduced himself to me on my first day of school, saying he would check in later to see how I was doing. I guess later had arrived.
I watched as he strolled up to me. He was a big, dark-haired kid with eyes that never blinked. I'm not kidding. His eyeballs must have been like sandpaper.
"What've you got?" he asked, nodding toward my shopping bag.
I shrugged. "Dinner."
"Can I see?"
I should have said no. I should have told him to take his dry, scratchy eyeballs and go bother someone else. But I didn't. I opened the bag.
At my old school, I once built a science project to demonstrate cause and effect. It was a crazy contraption with slides, traps, levers, doors, and pinwheels, connected by yards and yards of plastic tubing I had sawed in half lengthwise to form a chute. At the science fair, I set a rubber ball at the top and gave it a push. You wouldn't believe what happened. Things dropped, turned, opened, closed, cranked, and slid, until at the very bottom, a wooden stick poked out and turned over a cup of water. The water soaked a little squiggly green sponge. The sponge grew and grew, and before you knew it, you were staring at a dragon.
That's the way it was when I opened the bag. That one little push set everything in motion. Wheels turned, gears cranked, doors opened. At the bottom, waiting, was the sponge.
Who would have thought it really was a dragon?
Jake looked into the bag. "Are those crab cakes?"
"I love crab cakes."
I felt something stir, way down deep. "So?"
"You know," said Jake, "that school we go to, it's dangerous. You're new. I wouldn't expect you to know. Some pretty rough kids go there."
"Thanks for the information," I said.
"They'll beat you up. I've watched them do it. When someone new comes along, they jump him. I hate to see it. Of course, it doesn't have to be that way."
He took a step toward me. I could hear him breathe. Usually I would have been scared.
I'm not big or tough. At school, when other guys were wrestling on the playground, I was the one sitting on a bench, reading. Maybe Jake had spotted me there. Maybe he figured I'd be an easy target.
He said, "If they try to bother you, I could take care of them."
"What do you mean?"
"Protection," he said. "I'll make sure you're safe."
He gave me a cold, hard stare.
Go ahead, blink, I thought. Just once.
"The thing is," Jake said, "there's a price."
"What's the price?" I asked.
"Let's start with those crab cakes."
He reached into the bag. A hand shot out and grabbed his wrist. I was surprised to see that it was mine.
I heard myself say, "Don't do that."
He looked up, amazed. "You touched me. Nobody touches me."
After ripping his hand free, he snatched the bag and gave me a shove. I staggered back, tripped over the curb, and fell down. As I watched, he scooped out a handful of crab cake — my dinner — and shoved it into his mouth, grinning.
The floor heaved. Something big and dark came out. I think it had been in there a long time — before school, before we moved, ever since my dad left. It had started small and had grown day by day. Now it was huge. It came bursting out, and I couldn't stop it.
I got to my feet and strode toward him.
"These crab cakes are good," he said.
I punched him in the mouth, right where the crab cake had been.
"Hey!" he said in a muffled voice.
He dropped the bag and swung at me. I hit him in the nose, hard. There was a crunching sound. Blood spurted out.
I hit him again. "Blink," I said.
He blinked. I punched him in the stomach. He doubled over, and I brought my fists down on the back of his head.
It felt like a dream, the kind where you can do anything — walk through walls, climb buildings, destroy things just by looking at them.
He fell to the ground, moaning. I kicked him in the ribs. I kicked him again and again.
I kicked him for the way my dad had left us. I kicked him for the friends I had lost. I kicked him for the new teachers who hadn't learned my name and for all the people I'd met who thought quiet meant stupid and small meant weak.
I was surprised to find that it felt good. The more I did it, the better it felt.
Jake kept moaning. He had closed his eyes, and his face was bloody.
I started to kick him again, when someone grabbed me from behind. A voice said, "Oh my God."
I looked over my shoulder and saw a taxi driver. He had pulled over, jumped out of his cab, and wrapped his arms around my chest.
The man stared at Jake. "What have you done?"
"He took my crab cakes," I said.
Cloaked in Shadow
A crowd had gathered, and they glanced uneasily at the person who looked like me. They were horrified, and so was I. Who was he? Where had he come from? What would he do next?
There were sirens. An ambulance pulled up to the curb, and they loaded Jake Bragg inside. A police officer appeared next to me. He took my arm and led me away.
I learned about the back seat of a squad car and the inside of a police station. They had a smell. I think it was fear. I spent a lot of time sitting and waiting. My mind raced. I pictured myself in jail, eating scraps of food from a tray they pushed under the door.
Years passed, or maybe it was hours. Finally one of the police sergeants, a big man with dark skin and kind eyes, came in and sat down beside me. Above his uniform pocket was a nameplate: Clark.
"You're a lucky boy," said Sergeant Clark. "The hospital called. That kid you beat up, he has a concussion, but it looks like he'll be okay."
"That's great," I said.
"We checked up on you. You've never been in trouble. What happened out there?"
I didn't know what to say. "I guess I lost my temper."
"The police have a boxing club for kids, and I'm in charge. Maybe you should join."
"This might sound funny," I said, "but I don't like violence."
He cocked his head and gazed at me. "You're different."
You have no idea, I thought.
He said, "We're going to give you a break. You're free to go."
I stared at him. "I am?"
"Don't let it happen again. Right?"
I remembered the feeling when my fist smashed Jake's nose. It was something like joy.
I shivered. "Right."
"Your mother's here. She'll take you home."
Sergeant Clark thought he was letting me off easy. He had never met my mom. I looked up and saw her in the waiting area, pacing back and forth. She was tall, with long red hair and freckles. When she was mad, the freckles blended together. Today there was just one big freckle.
We were sitting in our car, parked behind the police station.
"Mom, stop saying that. They told you what happened. I tried to explain."
"I'm a librarian. This doesn't happen to librarians." She grabbed my shoulders and swung me around to face her. "We are civilized people. We don't fight. Do you understand?"
"He threatened me," I told her.
"They said he was on the ground, bleeding, and you were kicking him."
I looked away.
She said, "What in God's name were you doing?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know? You almost killed someone!"
"That's not true."
She jerked my head back to look at her. Her gaze cut me like a knife. "This is serious. Don't you see? You could have ruined your life."
Her voice broke. Her shoulders slumped, and she let go of me.
"Look, David," she said, "I know it's been rough. Your father runs off, we move, you change schools. But this ..."
She shook her head.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"That's not good enough."
She wiped her eyes, then started the car. As she drove, I could see her thinking. Finally she said, "I'm grounding you."
"You'll go straight home after school every day and stay there."
"For how long?" I asked.
"As long as it takes. Until you learn to control your anger." She glanced at me, her knuckles white on the steering wheel. "And so help me, if I hear about you fighting again, you'll never get out."
"Can I —"
"Shut up, David. Just shut up."
A few minutes later we pulled up to a curb. I got out of the car, in front of the place where I'd be spending my days and nights.
It was a house. We were living there. But it didn't feel like home. Home was where we used to live, in a neighborhood, with trees, lawns, and friends. This place was different — very different. My mom said they gave us a break on the rent, and I could see why.
The house stood tall and gray on a hillside, like a boulder, like a dark cloud. It had two floors plus an attic and narrow windows like eyes. The paint was peeling. There were loose shingles on the roof, and on top was a weather vane that turned even when there seemed to be no wind. Stone steps led to a thick wooden door. Gables bent across the door and over an attic window. There was a porch, but it wasn't the kind where your aunt Bessie would sit and swing.
It disappeared around the side of the house, cloaked in shadow, so you could never quite make out what was there.
Across the front of the yard was a rusted metal fence. Behind it, an old oak tree spread its branches like a spiderweb over the house. One of the branches reached the second-floor window of my bedroom. Since moving I'd had trouble sleeping, and sometimes late at night I would climb out and use the tree to escape the place. I wouldn't do much — just sit under the tree or walk around the block — but it made me feel better, like I was in control.
When the landlord had shown us the house, he had called it a Victorian. He'd said it dated back to the late 1800s, when it had been built on the ruins of an earlier residence. Over the years, the homes around it had been torn down and replaced by stores and other businesses, many with apartments above them. Some of the stores had been boarded up. Others were still operating. But the house lingered on.
I stared up at it. It stared back.
"Get used to it," said my mom. "For the next few weeks, this is your world."
I opened the metal gate. My mom walked inside, and I followed. The gate clanged shut behind me like the door of a jail cell.
My Pet Bat
I had seen her a few times at school. She was short with black hair and brown eyes. She was always smiling, and I could never figure out why.
A few days after the fight, I ran into her — literally. Heading off to school one morning, I had just come out of the gate and was looking back over my shoulder at the house. As I walked, I bumped into someone.
"Hey!" she said.
Turning around, I found myself facing her. She wore faded jeans and a T-shirt, and her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. A pile of textbooks lay at her feet.
"Sorry," I mumbled. I squatted down and gathered up her books.
"That's okay," she said. "I was looking at it too. You know, the house."
"Someone actually lives there. Can you believe it?"
I got to my feet and handed her the books.
"Thanks," she said. She tucked them under one arm and extended her hand. "I'm Libby Morales."
Her hand was soft and warm. "I'm David Cray," I said.
I nodded toward her books. "You should get a backpack."
"I have one. It's in the shop."
"My dad's a fix-it man. He repairs everything. There's just one catch — the paying customers come first. My mom has appliances sitting on his shelf that are older than I am."
She glanced down the street. "I should get to school. Are you going?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah."
"Then come on."
We walked together, past liquor stores and pawnshops. Libby did most of the talking, which was fine with me. It gave me a chance to look at her. I knew she was in the eighth grade, the same as me, but she looked older, especially around the eyes. She had a way of nodding as she spoke, kind of a built-in yes. When she smiled, her face glowed like the sun.
It turned out she lived down the street from our house, in an apartment over her father's shop, with her brother, sister, and parents. I hadn't thought of our block as a neighborhood, but she was a neighbor.
As we rounded the corner toward school, she glanced at me. "So, it's not true after all."
"What do you mean?"
"You're not eight feet tall. You don't have horns or torture kittens."
I must have looked puzzled.
"Look, David, I haven't been honest with you," she said. "I knew who you were as soon as I heard your name. Everybody at school knows. You're the boy who beat up Jake Bragg."
Suddenly it seemed important to explain. "He threatened me. He wanted me to pay him for protection. I never beat up anybody before."
She studied my face. "Really?"
"What are they saying about me?"
"Let's put it this way," she said. "I don't think you need protection, from Jake Bragg or anybody else."
Great. I'd barely started at school, and everybody was afraid of me. Well, almost everybody.
Libby smiled. "If you don't torture kittens, what do you do?" "Not much," I said. "I'm grounded."
"Because of the fight?"
I nodded. "It's okay. There's hope. I'll be out when I'm forty-three."
"Go to school, come home. Go to school, come home. Nice, huh?"
She said, "You must be tired of your apartment."
I didn't want to lie to her. It didn't seem right.
"Libby," I said, "I haven't been honest with you either. You know that house we were looking at? The creepy one with broken shutters? Someone does live there. It's my mom and me."
She stopped and stared at me.
I shrugged. "Well, there's also my pet bat."
She giggled, and the giggle turned into a laugh. Relieved, I laughed along with her.
"David Cray," she said, "you are full of surprises."
"Is that good?"
"I like surprises," she said.
I am Poe. I wrote stories, but none so glorious and appalling as the story I will tell you now, the one that seized me and would not let go.
The story began, as it ended, with death.
Virginia, my beloved wife, died. Without Ginny my light was gone, my soul split. The only thing left was words. Oh, tender, harsh, empty words!
I planned a magazine, called the Stylus. I sailed to Richmond to raise money and left two months later, a fat roll of bills in my pocket. All was well, or so I thought.
On the way back, my head began to throb as if caught in a vise. I staggered off the ship in Baltimore, where Ginny and I had spent our happiest years.
Pain! Spasms! Seizures!
I stumbled into an opium den, but the relief didn't last. I needed something stronger, and I wondered where I could get it.
A name skittered like a cockroach across my mind. Curse the day I heard it. Blast the day I remembered it.
Excerpted from "Room of Shadows"
Copyright © 2017 Ronald Kidd.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. A Dragon,
2. Cloaked in Shadow,
3. My Pet Bat,
4. A Minute Before Midnight,
5. Surrounded by Gravestones,
6. Snakes and Scorpions and One-Eyed Dogs,
7. An Icy Breeze,
9. Equal Rights for Thugs,
10. A Weird Coincidence,
11. A New Body with an Old Heart,
12. More Like a Coffin,
13. L Is for Loser,
14. It Could Be Acid,
15. Libby Snores,
16. I Nearly Threw Up,
18. The Book Was Leaking,
19. A Muffled Scream,
20. Welcome to My Nightmare,
21. Oh, Shut Up,
22. Something That You Fear,
23. A Perfect Moment,
25. Green Stuff Came Out,
26. Hideous and Deformed,
27. Grab Me and Gut Me,
28. A Bloody Fist,
29. Talking to a Buzz Saw,
30. Glue and Paint,