Chapter : 1
Wearing the Inside Out
My Name is Carver. My first name is Paul, but I’ve gone by Carver for so long now that I barely answer to Paul. I’m what you call stuck. Neither fully adult, nor totally a kid anymore, caught in between ten and twenty. I’m 15 but that’s just a number. If experience is any indicator of someone’s age, then I must be somewhere around 80.
My Pops was a fighter pilot, and he served 6 tours in the Middle East. I know that’s not a great distinction for some, especially the way people view the U.S. military these days, but my father did his duty. He went out and did his job, protecting his friends and family and his country with every ounce of skill and talent I know he possessed.
And yeah, I say possessed because he died in that war. So before you go getting all uppity about how wrong it was, or how bad my country is because we jumped all over some small country looking for oil, let me tell you right now that I’ll meet any one of you any where any time and let you know that no matter what else happened in that war, it cost me my father’s life, and might cost you a black eye. And if you wanna say stuff like it was just a fight for the oil, then let me tell you, you’re driving your car more often because my old man gave his life for it. So don’t give me any grief unless you want some in return.
Mom wasn’t the same after Pops was shot down. We watched the TV for days on end, waiting to hear something about him. His plane was shot down due to an accidental launch of our own ground defense missiles. He had been taking down any Iraqi aircraft bold enough to challenge our control of the skies and he had won every engagement. Figures our own people would be the only ones who could even come close to taking my Pop out. My old man was a great fighter pilot.
After the funeral, and there wasn’t much left over that we buried, Mom and I had to leave the Air Force base. It was the first time I’d live off base, among the civilians. It was the first time I’d have to get used to being an outsider, even though we were going back to Mom and Pop’s hometown, Canterbury, Massachusetts. We’d been there a few times in the past. You know, holidays, summer vacations, things like that.
But this time, instead of visiting strangers I was related to, I was coming home. Home as a stranger in a strange land. Home without a complete family. Military families know the drill, you know. They know about the loneliness and all that goes with having to move around. Because of that, every base might have been new, different and strange at first, but they were all like family. Everyone helped everyone else.
We moved in with my aunt, Sarah Willetts. She’s actually like a great aunt, but she’s never quibbled on that point. Family, as far as Aunt Sarah was concerned, was family. Her old house was huge and had plenty of space for us. I still felt like a guest there instead of a resident. It just wasn’t home to me yet. I mean, I’m a military BRaT, okay; Born Raised and Trapped. I’m used to pulling stakes every three years and starting over. Friends, school, the whole bit. But this was the last time for that cycle now. This time there were consequences.
Mom was in bad shape. She just never really recovered after Pops died. She was okay some days. But she wasn’t up to taking care of herself, or me. Not that I needed all that much looking after at 15. But she would lie in bed for hours at a time, rocking back and forth, crying herself silly.
I never want to fall in love, if that’s what it does to you. I mean, I love my Pops totally. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do had he asked me. Nothing. And that was the same kind of love he gave back to us all the time, to Mom and me. No boundaries, no barriers and no secrets.
But if love like that, so total and committed and unselfish only leaves your partner a battered, stricken, empty shell if you die, well, I don’t want to feel that, and I’d sure as hell hate to have that as my legacy. I’d rather not have love than wind up some kind of half alive zombie.
We moved in during the early summer, when local kids were just getting out of school. I still didn’t know where I fit in to all of this, so I found myself skating a lot to just get out of the house, get the tension out of my system, you know. I’d strap on my blades and take on the steepest hills in town, both ways, thriving on the thrill of wind in my hair and gunning myself up tough slopes, fighting for every inch of asphalt I conquered. It was hard and painful and it really soaked my clothes with tangy sweat, but I loved every minute of it. It was what I had to look forward to. It was the only thing I had to let me know I was alive.
It was a particularly brutal day for me. Mom was an absolute mess. I couldn’t stand being in the house anymore with her shouting at me. I mighta forgotten to tell you that I was the spitting image of my Pops. My baby pictures and his are virtually identical. I guess it hurt Mom some times to see me. Her and Pops were always an item. Even back to elementary school. I can see where that loss burns her so deep.
But it made me feel like I was nothing more to her than a constant reminder of Pop. I love him, but I hate how I have to be everything he was to everyone who knew him. I might be a chip off the old block, but I’m me too. It’s enough to make me hate myself for not being him, for not being him to everyone else, and for what it does to Mom.
Yeah, I know that I’m not supposed to let stuff like that get to me. I know it’s not my fault. I know that Mom doesn’t mean all the nasty things she says. Or screams, rather. But it still feels like that. It still feels like it’s all my fault.
So I’m out, didn’t even bother strapping the skates on at the house, because I just needed to get the hell out. I just walked. I got to a particularly nasty part of town, where the hills weren’t the only danger and sat on a street corner and put my blades on. I skated back to the house and tossed my tenni-runners over the porch railing and kept going. I didn’t even have pocket money. I didn’t care. I needed to feel the wind whip my tears away with speed and feel my body burn with sweat.
I started down Winter Street, heading into the weird traffic circle at the bottom of the hill. I kept mostly to the sidewalks, just trying for speed, just to put the wind in my ears. But near the bottom of the hill, just past the train trestle, there’s a small bridge at what’s commonly called Mill Stream. The guard rails there had been taunting me for several days, and I was in a mood to challenge something.
My thoughts, if you can call them that, were simple. Either I’d triumph and actually have something to feel good about, or I’d cut it hard and either get plastered to the asphalt, or take a dip in the stream. In any case, I was so feed up with anger and hurt that fear never even entered into it.
The rails were round, smooth metal, polished by the rub of many hands and the weather over dozens of years. They stacked at least as high as my shoulder in three continuous runs, supported every, idunno, ten feet or so by similar metal poles coming up through plumbers joints. It was strong and sturdy and time worn. It was something I had to test myself against sooner or later, and I decided that today was the day. After all, as far as I was concerned, I had nothing to lose.
So I lifted my heels, pushed harder with my toe wheels and sprang up just as I got near the bridge rails.
The feeling was awesome. One second I was putting my left foot up on the middle rail, stepping up, and next I had my right foot up on the top rail, turning flat to take my weight on the bar, when my left leg, due to come up to take it’s place ahead of my right, well, it fetched up against a metal support post and I went tumbling face first to the sidewalk. I know for sure that I skidded on face and shoulder about a good two yards with this bone jarring impact that rattled my brains and crushed the air from me.
It took me a few seconds to recover and as I sat there, looking stupid and ready to crawl over the railing and just let the stream have me. While I laid there, feeling totally worthless and still hearing Mom’s voice in my head, senses spinning, three tough looking street kids came up. I wasn’t up on the gang situation in town, but just then it doesn’t matter. You learn how to tell who’s a predator and who’s prey when you move around a lot. Just that moment, those three predators thought I was easy meat. They started moving towards me slow, probably to keep the people driving by on the street from realizing what was going on.
I knew what was in store for me, though. A serious beating. I managed to get to my feet and started pushing off, trying hard to get my steps and glides smooth, presenting the appearance of someone who wasn’t as badly hurt as I suddenly felt. There was a deep ringing in my bones, if you know what I mean. Everything felt out of whack, jarred and spastic. And I couldn’t get a decent breathing rhythm. In short, not only did I look like easy meat, I was probably really cheap fillet mignon to those jokers.
I managed to get some distance, heading into an area of old houses and ducked behind one, skating uneasily against the side of the building and holding my breath. The kids ran by still looking for me down the other streets. How I remained hidden, I don’t know. What I do know is that just as I was about to let myself collapse on the curb to get my wind and assess the damage, I spotted a kid watching me out a window at the house next door.
He looked about 13 or so, and he had this expression like he had just been staring at a train wreck or something. You know, disgusted yet strangely fascinated. I must have locked eyes with him for a few minutes. I felt suddenly weak in the knees and my left skate took off without me changing weight. Well, at least that’s how I remember it.
Next thing I know, I’m lying on the ground, this boy looking down at me, applying a rapidly melting icepack to my forehead. I felt still dizzy, but couldn’t really do much about it at the time.
“Stay down a minute,” he said, pushing me back. He had a lot of strength for a kid his age. And his hands were rough, like he was used to hard work. “I’ve stopped the bleeding, but we probably need to see if you have any gravel in that knee.”
“Carver,” I said, still kinda groggy, feeling that introductions were in order.
“Jack Thomas, now hold still,” he replied, and he actually pushed really hard on my shoulder and I felt the world explode. Suddenly a numbness swept over me and I realized that the shoulder had been hurting as I got up and ran from the street hoods. He had just fixed my shoulder.
“Better,” I said, my throat feeling three feet thick, dry and coated in razor blades. He helped me to my feet. Feet, not skates, because he had already taken those off. He got under my other shoulder and walked me over to the front porch of his house, took me inside and the blessing of air conditioning swept across my skin. He sat me down on a wide couch and ran back outside. He came in a moment later with my skates and set them near the door. I musta closed my eyes again, because when he was next before me, he had a cold Diet Pepsi in his hand.
Now normally, I’m a Coke drinker. And anything with the words diet, light, caffeine-free or reduced fat in its title or anywhere on the packaging usually gets a pass from me. But just then, it seemed like the most perfect thing in the world. He could have offered me rusty water with mosquito larvae swimming in it and I’d have drank it.
Frankly, I was a little bit surprised by all the attention and expert care he had given me. I was a total stranger, and from what I’d seen of this town so far, total strangers are pretty much ignored. It didn’t matter that I had a familiar last name, or that I was the spitting image of one of the towns honored native sons. I wasn’t a known quantity. I hadn’t done my little league and soccer time here. I wasn’t a familiar face among the class mothers and teachers.
In short, I should have been pretty much left out there to just bleed and bake my brains in the hot sun.
“C’mon, drink a little. It wont kill ya,” he said, his New England accent thick as the Scottish brogue on that guy from the old Star Trek shows. The ones with the lousy special effects.
I drank a little and felt so much better for having that tingle of fizz chasing down my throat. He left me the can and went and sat down on a nearby lounger. I got a good look around the room and realized that this kid didn’t have a whole lot. There wasn’t a great deal of anything in the room. The TV was a tiny one that rested on top of a great big one. Neither TV had a cable box on it. The stereo in the corner actually had a turntable on it, and no CD player. The furniture looked like good salvage work from the Salvation Army store, and none of it matched, save for these two ugly purple lamps that matched nothing else. The curtains were on their last legs, looking like something that the cat had climbed one time too many.
“Is there someone you need to call?” he asked. I looked over at the phone, an old rotary model and thought for a moment about who I could call, aside from Mom over at Aunt Sarah’s house. No name came readily to mind, and for a frozen moment, I felt like I had lost everything. Like I was part of the mismatched furniture around me. Cast off bits from broken sets.
I shook my head, feeling like going back to the stream and jumping in anyways. I set down the can and tried to stand. And fell flat on my ass, back on the couch.
Jack was at my side in a minute, leaping over the beat up wooden coffee table and easing me back to a sitting position. His hands were strong and tough, I noticed again, but he had a degree of control with them that tempered his innate strength with a supple tenderness and sensitivity I’d never encountered before.
“Easy. That was a bad spill down at the bridge. You need to get centered again before you exert yourself.”
“You saw?” I croaked out. My voice still was playing with the razor blades.
“Yes. And I saw you run and why you ran.”
“Kinda dumb,” I said, talking about myself, how I felt, about the thought of trying to skim that rail in general, I dunno, probably all of those.
“Yeah, well,” he said, indifferently. “Learning experience.”
I nodded at that. He didn’t speak much, but what he did say made lots of sense.
“How were you watching?”
“Out the back,” he said, tilting his head. “I was out in the garden”
“Oh.” I finally got around to noticing details about him. Guess my eyes were focusing better now. He was more my age than I had thought before, but exceptionally trim; couple inches shorter than me. His shirt was off, showing almost every little muscle and bone point in fine, firm detail He wasn’t a study of thick powerful muscles, but he was thin, sculpted and tight. His movements were smooth and coordinated. No motion wasted.
His eyes were a deep green, but his mused hair was a dusty light brown, dry looking, clipped short over his ears. A scant dusting of freckles was disappearing under his sun darkened skin. His nose was long and thin, ending in a tiny ski jump over lips that were expressive, yet thin, kinda tucked back like he wasn’t used to speaking much. His face was much like his body. Sharp on detail, narrow in build, made for expression yet used to calm. I couldn’t see anything of his legs other than his bare feet, which didn’t really tell me anything since they were dirty, obviously from the garden.
“What is it?” he asked, noticing me staring at him.
“Nothing,” I replied. “I’m still kinda shaken up.”
“Well, yeah,” he said, simply. It was like a rebuke at being so stupid and a deeply understanding sense of empathy all at once. I was suddenly fascinated by this boy. How he knew what to do for my arm, how he was so quiet yet was able to say so much with just a few words. How his stare seemed to pierce right through me and I didn’t feel uncomfortable about it.
“Carver,” I said again, uncertain why, but the silence was unbearable. Somehow, this kid was seeing all my secrets, I knew it, but he was neither surprised, offended, shocked or even thrown off by them. And I wasn’t upset that he could see them. It was a weird moment. “Paul Carver.”
“I know who you are,” he said, handing me the ice pack.
“I live next door to your Aunt Sarah. This is my brother’s house. He lets me keep a garden here, since the soil on the other side of town is so acidic.”
“How come I’ve never seen you on my street?”
“I don’t let a lot of people see me come and go. But I’ve seen you many times before. You skate really well. I like watching you sometimes.” That part freaked me a little. “Your bed room is right across from mine as well. I sometimes see you cry at night.” Well, if the thought of him watching me was freaky, the fact that he watched me in my bedroom suddenly brought me up short.
“You watch me?”
“Not all the time. I see you sometimes and see what you are doing. When I see you crying, or changing clothes I go back to doing what I was doing. I’m not spying on you. I just see things.”
“How old are you?”
“14. I turn 15 in September.”
“So how come you never came over to say hello before, or came out to go skating with me or something?”
“You weren’t ready.”
He sighed loudly and sat down again, his sharp eyes shooting a contemplative, sideways glance at me. “You weren’t ready for a friend yet. You were too busy feeling sorry for yourself. It wouldn’t have gone well.”
“I…” I started to say, and then reconsidered. I had been kind of a lousy shit lately. Sure I was depressed all the time, angry and hurt thanks to Mom, still dealing with Pop’s dying. Yeah, right, dealing: by screaming at me like I pulled the wings off his plane myself. There was a lot of crap going on. I guess even though I was desperate for a friend, for any kind of human contact that I could make a real connection with, I wasn’t ready. When I looked back up at him, he sort of shrugged.
“I’m not sure,” he said, as if in answer to my next question. “But you needed help today, so I decided to act before other actions were necessary.”
“That’s kinda cold,” I said. He shrugged his shoulders, neither an apology nor an acknowledgment.
“It’s just how I am. I don’t have many friends. Any, in fact. I’m spooky to a lot of people. You call it cold. It’s not really true, I just have more control than most people. It frightens some.”
Everything about this kid suddenly fascinated me, almost to the point of being overly curious. I massaged my shoulder for a moment, feeling the tightness leave it. But he moved forwards, so fast, and started massaging it for me. His fingers were hard and warm, and he pushed my shirt sleeve up as he applied small, circular motions and pressure. Almost instantly I felt the world drift away. His hands were like magic, pounding the tension away, grinding through burning twinges and just loosening the muscles up, almost to the consistency of warm mayonnaise. And even though he only worked on my shoulder, my whole body felt completely loose and relaxed and gooey under his hands.
Well, one part wasn’t loose and relaxed. I tried to slide my hand over my lap to keep my boner from showing. You know, kinda nonchalantly holding things to the side with my wrist, covering with my forearm.
“That’s better,” he said, leaning back to inspect my face. “We should do something about that.”
“About what?” I asked, suddenly feeling that I’d do anything he asked me.
“You have some facial abrasions. They need to be cleaned.”
“Okay. Hey, Jack, what was wrong with my arm before?”
“You dislocated your shoulder,” he said with a half amused half odd sound. Like I should have known my shoulder had been knocked out of joint. He snorted and led me to the bathroom. He sat me on the toilet and started cleaning my facial wound. It stung at first, but I marveled at how his strong fingers felt against my face.
“I have a question for you, if I may?” he asked, towards the end of his cleaning work.
“Why do you cry at night. Boys our age don’t cry often. I just want to know why you do.” I turned my face away from him, feeling the tears beginning to return. “I’m sorry. That is a question I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, I guess I have to tell someone.”
He sat down on the edge of the tub and stared up at me with his intense eyes. I suddenly felt like I could tell him anything. Not only could he understand everything, but he’d be able to help me deal with things. I don’t know how I knew that, or why, for that matter. But as mismatched as everything around this boy was, he seemed to be perfectly relaxed and at peace. The eye of the storm.
“My father was a pilot in the Air Force. F-22’s. He was shot down during the war.”
“And you miss him?”
“Yeah. But it wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t remind my Mom of him all the time. I look just like him, you see. She isn’t dealing with it well, and,” I paused, feeling the tears coming out but not crying like I do when I’m trying to sleep. My breathing was regular, my voice didn’t catch, I wasn’t sniffing back tears and nose junk. I was crying calmly, as weird as that sounds. “And I guess she takes it out on me. So I get out and I skate it off. Just to get out the energy and the hurt.”
Jack seemed impassive as an Egyptian statue for several moments and then he nodded. He reached out and laid the backs of his fingers against my cheek, interrupting the tears and then bringing them out to where I could see them.
“This is your pain, distilled and let out. This is your pain shared. The crying you do in the dark of your room is your pain pushed deeper into yourself.” He stood and leaned over and… and he hugged me. Just put his chest against my head and held me there. “If you need to let out these tears, to share them, I will share them with you.”
I felt my arms snake up to his skinny waist and I just held him against me. My tears continued to fall, wetting his skin. But I didn’t lose it. I didn’t get weepy and emotional. I just let it out and cried softly against him. He held on to me with a subtle strength that was steady, pure, not hard, not possessive, and his touch was gentle without being soft. He was a boy whose skin was delicately tempered steel.
“Does this mean we’re friends,” I asked.
“Yes, Carver. We are friends”
I smiled, and the tears kept coming, and he just held me until they were done.