Authors: Peter Meredith
Tags: #Children's Books, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Suspense, #Children's eBooks, #Science Fiction; Fantasy & Scary Stories, #Dystopian
"Look, I'm not going to hurt you... It's me, Jerry Mendel, Kyle's father?"
There was something in the way he said this that struck an odd chord in Jesse. It sounded to her like a rehearsed line, one that he had used many times before, and it was spoken in such a way that it was clear that Mr. Mendel was expecting a rote response.
Whatever that response was supposed to be, was beyond Jesse. First, she had literally just moved into town the previous day and knew absolutely no one, and second, at the moment, she didn't really care who Kyle or Jerry Mendel were. She only cared about getting away from the Shadow-man and getting into town.
"Suh-suh..." Her breath was still coming so raggedly that all she could do was point down at the berm, fifty yards away.
The man's demeanor changed, turning cautious. He squinted down toward the berm, which was almost completely hidden by the intervening trees.
"Someone!" Jesse was finally able to gasp out. "Down..."
A charge seemed to go through Jerry. "Someone's down there? Who is it, do you know?"
Jesse didn't have a clue and thought the explanation of an evil shadow was too childish to bother with, so she only shook her head. Jerry eyed her for a few moments and then looked back to the berm for two more before he reached out and grabbed her arm. Jesse flinched back and tried to pull away, but he held her with an iron grip.
"It's not safe here," he said in the tiniest of whispers. "Come on." He gave her a firm tug and had it been in any other direction but toward the town she would have screamed and fought him. Thankfully, however, he propelled them up the trail in the direction of the lights and she was so spent that soon she began leaning on him for support.
Jerry kept quiet until they had cleared the last of the trees and then he too seemed to sag from their little mini-adventure. "Have you seen Kyle, anywhere?" he asked, eyeing Jesse closely.
At first she resented the look, until she remembered she was too new to be hated just yet. That probably wouldn't occur until the next day.
"I don't know who Kyle is. I just moved to town."
"Oh...well Kyle is..." The man seemed suddenly at a loss, as if it was unheard of for someone not to know his son. "He's..."
"Your son," Jesse tried.
Jerry nodded, but acted like there was more to it than just that, yet he didn't elaborate. He only glanced back the way they had come, before turning again to her. "Miss..."
"My name is Jesse." Purposefully she left off her last name.
"Jesse, it's nice to meet you. I'm Jerry Mendel." His hand was a block of ice, even colder than hers was. "Sorry," he said rubbing his hands together. "I've been out all night looking for Kyle."
"I haven't seen anyone but you and..." Perhaps this Kyle was the person who had chased her. "Is your son really big?"
"Not especially. Wait, was the person you saw in the woods a really big guy?" Jerry put his arms out tall and wide. She nodded and he continued. "That's not Kyle, that's a man that you want to steer clear of. Look, I gotta go. Do you need a ride?"
Jesse figured she would call her mom from the library. Cynthia was home and didn't have the luxury of an excuse not to come get her. "No, thank you. I have a ride. But, can you tell me about the..."
Suddenly agitated, Mr. Mendel cut across her, shaking his head, "I don't have time, sorry." He started walking away, but he turned and spoke over his shoulder, "Don't go out alone at night anymore. At least not until the next body shows up."
The next body? Jesse opened her mouth to ask about it, but Mr. Mendel had continued to walk away from her and, in moments, she was all alone and freaking out, once again.
The next body? The question kept running through her mind, at least until she made it to the library, whereupon a new confusion kicked out any thought of bodies.
For a late Sunday evening the library was strangely jam-packed. Kids talked and tittered everywhere; they overflowed the private study rooms, and lounged down every aisle. There were a dozen make-out sessions going on in every corner and a hacky sack circle had formed in the large open foyer. There were kids of all types there: Jocks and cheerleaders, punks and emos; there even appeared to be a gang in long black trench coats sitting against the emergency door in the very back of the building. This they had propped open with a brick, while they sat about smoking cigarettes and trying to look tough.
None of this made sense to Jesse who walked about with what must have been a shocked expression on her face. In every other town she had lived in, the library had been the preserve of nerds and outcasts like her. It wasn't for regular kids.
Her purpose for coming out as she had that night was in the vain hope of finding a friend…or at least an acquaintance. Someone she could sit next to at lunch the next day or at least smile at in the hallways. Her one chance at this was to find a person who looked lonely and strike up a conversation. Sadly, if she didn't get a friend that night she would never get one. It was just the way it was for her.
Though she looked everywhere, strangely no one was sitting alone. Even stranger, dweebs sat with preps, and nerds sat with hot chicks. Jesse found herself in Bizarro world.
She made a full circuit of the building without finding what she had come for. Only then did she head to the front desk where an elderly woman in a grey cardigan sat.
"Hi, can I get a library card, please?" Jesse asked as she eased around some milling middle-schoolers were loitering near the front desk.
"Sure thing, dear." Despite appearing frazzled by the commotion going on about her, the librarian, who was sitting on a tall stool, and looking more like a lifeguard than anything else, had a pleasant air about her. But also a curious air; a new person in a tiny town like Ashton was a rare thing indeed and sure to be a seven-day wonder. She stayed very close as Jesse filled out the form and the girl could feel the older lady's eyes hot all over the little paper.
When Jesse had entered all the information that she could she slid the card over to the lady and it was then she felt the first chill.
The librarian glared down at the card, then slid it back and said icily, "We don't accept incomplete applications."
"I don't know the zip code here. I forgot it. Could you just tell it to me?"
"I'm sorry, but I'm not an almanac. Go look it up." The tone was as snotty as an adult could go without sounding like a teenager. Not only did this cause a stir among the middle-schoolers, it made Jesse's cheeks go red and her ears feel hot.
There was no use arguing with her, the librarian could rule supreme as a tyrant in her little kingdom. Jesse was just about to turn away and look for someone, other than one of the middle-schoolers, to ask when she saw that the librarian had a little stack of business cards sitting right in front of her. The library's address sat only inches away. Jesse snatched one up and jotted the zip code onto her form.
The librarian took the application, glanced at it and said in a loud voice, "That'll be twenty dollars,"
"Twenty dollars! That's ridiculous," Jesse exclaimed. She had never paid for a library card in her life.
"Yes, it is terribly ridiculous," the lady replied in a nasty manner. "It's the new town manager's fault. He thinks the library should be self-supporting; as if a price could ever be placed on access to this much knowledge." She waved her arm to the hundreds of shelves laden with books.
This was a new low for Jesse's father. He had done some unconscionable things before, but never something as stupid as this. Scowling, Jesse dug out what was supposed to be her lunch money for the coming week and slid the twenty dollar bill across to the grey-haired biddy behind the desk.
"If you don't like it Miss Clarke, why don't you bring it up with the new manager? I can give you his address." The librarian held up the application and pointed at the address that Jesse had just filled in.
"Maybe, I will," Jesse replied, coolly. She then looked at the librarian, who only smiled at her in a nasty way. This went on for a few seconds until Jesse blurted out, "My library card? Could you get it, please?"
"Sure thing. It'll be ten-to-fourteen business days." Saying this seemed to make the librarian very happy. Jesse could only shake her head in bewilderment, so the older lady explained in an over-loud voice, "Sorry,
, but the new town manager,
slashed our budget and we had to let three of our part-time employees go. And right before Christmas, too! What a shame." Here she put on a sad face and clicked her tongue.
The younger children behind her commenced a low whispering behind Jesse's back. This was just the beginning, Jesse thought. She knew from past, painful experience that over the next few days the whispers would grow like a storm. Everywhere she'd go the soft murmuring would tag along in her wake, but that would seem like a treat compared to what will invariably follow.
The whispering would turn into catcalls and insults; and then would come cruel mocking laughter. After that she would have to endure threats...and then violence.
Jesse felt the heat of shame at being the daughter of a bastard who could fire people right before Christmas. She wanted to denounce him right there in front of everyone as being a son of a bitch, a jerk and every other name she could think of only, again, she knew it wouldn't save her. She had tried it before.
Like no other, she felt she had been born to be hated.
Not even her father, the bastard himself, was so despised. Certainly there were some that hated him, but mostly he was feared and his butt was kissed by everyone. He was referred to as decisive, while she was called a slut. He was described as a leader in difficult times, she was labeled a bitch. He stood defiant against political opponents, she ate her lunch alone.
And there was no one she could turn to.
Her father worked sixty-hour weeks, but that was nothing compared to Jesse's mother. Cynthia Clarke worked from sunup to long past sundown and she had the much harder job of the two. Her sole occupation was to try to convince everyone, including herself, that despite her husband she was truly a good person. To that end she volunteered her time to a dozen charities at once. She was always baking cookies that Jesse couldn't eat. She was always donating clothes that Jesse still wore. She was always out mentoring “at risk” children while Jesse was left to fend for herself.
And the worst of all, the very worst, was that once James Clarke's stringent budget-cutting and Scrooge-like streamlining began to take effect, people who had once hated him would clap him on the back and thank him for his hard work. Whenever they would move on to the next bankrupt town, Jesse's mother would be gifted with going away presents and told with all honesty how much she would be missed.
But Jesse would remain hated.
No child, or adult for that matter, had ever come up to her and apologized for their mistreatment of her. Not once, and she no longer bothered to hope that it would ever happen. In fact, she really didn't care. If someone was going to be mean to her because of what her father did, then screw ‘em. Even if they did apologize, she would simply spit in their face.
She was an angry girl. A desperately lonely, angry girl and just then, with the librarian sneering the way she was, Jesse had never felt angrier.
"Was it really a shame that they were fired?" Jesse asked the librarian. Despite being pissed off she tried to keep her tone calm to show that she was a cool customer, but her voice rose nonetheless. "If they were as lazy as you are then I say good riddance."
"How dare you call me lazy!" The librarian came off her lifeguard chair and, as she did so, Jesse stepped forward aggressively. This was something the old lady wasn't expecting and she flinched back.
"You are lazy. You've done nothing since I walked in here but sit in that chair like you're a queen. And now you tell me that typing a library card will take you two weeks? It's a wonder that you weren't fired as well."
Now the lady's face went as grey as her hair. "Get out. Right now! I never want to see you in here again."
Jesse smirked at this. There wasn't a ghost of humor in it—instead it was an angry, hard smirk. She loved the library. It was her refuge from the world. It was her refuge from the hate and the insults and the cruel laughter that came after the stupid, stupid jokes at her expense. However this library was clearly infested with the very roaches she looked to avoid. Just then an image of herself holding a flaming torch popped into her head. Her lips were twisted in a smirk as she turned the torch on the building and it went up in flames. The fire ate up the books and the children with equal delight and the smirk grew into a wicked smile.
She was a desperately lonely girl who had been hated for so long that the hate had baked down deep into her soul where it roiled and burned. For some time, the hate had begun to radiate back up, coming out in little ways: the hard uncaring looks, the cutting insults, but mostly the hate came out in her imagination.
"I said get out!" The librarian rose to the challenge behind Jesse's eyes.
"This is a
library, ma'am, and as a member of the public I have every right to be here. But..." Jesse let that hang in the air for affect. "...I think I will take you up on your offer to speak to the City Manager. He and I have a surprisingly close relationship. He buys me ice cream and he frequently listens to my recommendations. Maybe I'll suggest he hires back one those part-time workers you mentioned and get rid of some of the dead weight around here instead."
"I have a contract with the town. It's..." the librarian's words were hollow and Jesse spoke over her with ease.
a lot of people. In every contract, there are always loopholes. A lawyer's whole job is either to discover loop-holes or to create them." Jesse had overheard her father say those exact same words only that morning at breakfast. As was usual, when he was at home, he had been on the phone with someone from work.
The librarian went greyer still, but rallied for one last effort. "My contract is ironclad. It was written..."
Again, Jesse spoke over her, "Nothing is ironclad in this economy." It was another little gem of her father's and, because he had said it with such self-assurance, Jesse believed him unreservedly. She employed the same tone and it shut the librarian down completely.
The librarian looked as though she had been punched in the head and Jesse began to feel a touch of remorse. The hate within her, what she thought of as “rebound hate” wasn't all-encompassing; there was still plenty of room for guilt. But she didn't apologize to the librarian or try in any way to calm the fears that she had stoked. Her anger over how the old lady had treated her was too fresh, instead she raised an eyebrow by way of saying good-bye and walked to the exit. As she did the whispering behind her back increased, just as she had known it would.