Upper-case Exothermic Upper-case Reaction

Part One

Foster care wasn’t as bad as I was led to believe. I mean, it was no picnic, but I really didn’t deserve any better anyway. So I put up with it.

It was five months ago that my parents and my brother died. It was my fault. My therapist gets real pissed off at me when I hint at that, but whatever, he can suck it. He doesn’t know what I know.

What I know is this. I left the heater on in my brother’s room on purpose. Not by accident, like everyone thinks. On purpose. Because I was mad at him. I set up the heater, aimed at all his dozens of carefully crafted plasticine figures, the ones he had spent hours and hours painstakingly working on for the past few years, hoping a couple of them would melt. I figured he deserved it, because he wouldn’t let me take his new game to my friend’s for the night. So I wanted revenge.

How fucked up is that? I’m so utterly pathetic.

I mean, thinking about it later, I obviously should’ve realized that stuff is probably really flammable, probably made of oil or something. And I should have remembered the base he had used was painted cardboard, and likely was flammable too. I didn’t mean for it to happen that way. But it did, ’cause I was too stupid to think of that.

So, I went to my friend Scott’s on Saturday, after setting up the heater, thinking my brother would get what he deserved. Then I walked home Sunday, a bit later in the afternoon than I had planned, because I was worried about my parents’ reaction when they found out what I did.

When I rounded the corner I saw the police car first, and a red painted panel truck with “Fire Inspector – City of Medicine Hat, Alberta” painted on the side. Then I saw the house.

Nobody had known where I was.

The police and fire crew had figured out that I wasn’t in the house, but none of the neighbours or any of the other people they had been able to contact had known where I was. So they weren’t able to find me, and do what they usually do, which is have some trained people meet with me and tell me the awful news in some carefully scripted and controlled way. Instead, I found out the way I did.

I don’t know how long I was standing there, and I don’t actually remember walking closer to the house. I remember the cop trying to get my attention, acting like she had been doing so for a bit too long. I remember looking at her. I remember her asking me my name. I remember not answering, but instead looking back at the house. I remember the other cop putting his hand on my shoulder, real gently, and repeating the first cop’s question. I remember the hand feeling like it was burning, like it was searing into me. I remember yelling something, or screaming, or something. I remember asking where my parents were.

I didn’t even ask about my brother.

And when I asked about my parents, at first it was because I was really, really scared about what punishment I was going to get.

Like I said, absolutely fucking pathetic.

They didn’t even tell me at first. Instead, after they finally got me to tell them that yes, my name is Randall Jordan, they just looked at each other, then one of them got on their radio and called someone. Next thing I know, I’m being herded into some woman’s car and sat down in an over-decorated office.

I remember sitting there, after she told me my brother and parents were dead. Burned to death. I remember her telling me Dad had been found next to my brother, near the stairs, like he’d been trying to carry him out, and Mom was near the back door, but something fell.

She didn’t say it like that, of course. She tried to tell me how they hadn’t suffered. Much. Probably. And how heroic my dad had been. And she tried to tell me how fortunate it was that I wasn’t home. But I could tell, behind her eyes, that she already knew what I was.

I didn’t cry. Not then, and not at the funerals. And not in the five months since. I didn’t have the right. I didn’t deserve that, to allow myself to grieve. I allowed guilt, I allowed scorn, and I allowed burning self-hatred. That’s all I’d allow, now or ever.

It took my friends a while, before they figured it out. Before they’d leave me alone. It took Scott longest of all, for some reason. Weird, I always figured he was smart. But even he finally got the message. Kind of. He still keeps giving me looks. Like, every day. But I think he’s figuring it out. To leave me alone, I’m not worth his, or anyone’s, time. I’m poison. I’m a criminal, a murderer. I’m a festering sack of pus taking up space and people’s time and money that would be better spent on someone else.

It was easier, living so far away and busing to school.

Dr. Kirk, that’s my therapist, he said I’m depressed. That’s why I was acting like that. He gave me pills.

He was wrong, though. I wasn’t depressed. I just didn’t have any right to feel anything like fun, or enjoyment. So I tried and make sure I kept out of situations where that might happen. And I’ve learned how to fake taking the pills, so my foster dad thinks I’m really taking them. That’s actually kind of pathetically easy. He’s so gullible.

I settled into a routine, more or less. With the holidays over, that was a bit easier. At least going to school gave me something to do. The holidays were awful, and Christmas Day was completely fucked. I mean, what the hell did my foster dad expect? I wandered down, around ten I think. I don’t know why he didn’t wake me up. Then he smiles, and says, “Merry Christmas, Randy.”

Like, are you fucking kidding me? Why would he say that? Then he points to the tree, and the gifts under it. I looked over at it, stared at the brightly coloured packages, blinked, looked back at him, then turned around and walked back up to my room, closing the door softly behind me. Hours later, he knocked and left a tray of food for me. Christmas dinner food. I couldn’t figure out why. Though I guess I realized later that he might want some Christmas dinner for himself. See how selfish I am?

I never did find out what happened to the gifts. They sat there a couple of days, under the tree. I refused to go near them. I wouldn’t even go into the living room. Then, one day, they were gone. So was the tree.

School started up again. The second half of grade eight. I went to my classes. I made sure I was where I was supposed to be. I did what I was told, more or less. I didn’t want to cause trouble or extra work for any of the teachers. But I didn’t bother raising my hand or anything in class. Not anymore. I took down my notes, though I knew I would never read them. I wrote down the homework assignments, though I knew I wouldn’t do them. I answered the other kids when they talked to me, just so they wouldn’t have to put up with rudeness, but I made sure I kept it short and made excuses to be somewhere else. Gym was hardest, because a lot of the stuff in gym was fun. But I couldn’t have fun, so I had to just stand on the side. When my gym teachers got tired of yelling at me, they would send me to the office, or the guidance counselor. Now, during gym class, I would just go straight to the guidance office, and sit in that little room they have with the magazines. The guidance counselor didn’t try and talk to me anymore, so I’d just sit there. Sometimes I’d read.

At the end of March I brought my report card with me to my foster dad’s house. I hadn’t opened it, didn’t really see the point. I knew what was in there. I handed it to him and sat down on the sofa, waiting for the lecture I deserved but wouldn’t listen to.

But, for some reason, he didn’t give me one. He carefully read through my report card, it took forever, he kept glancing at me often. Then he gently folded it up, put it back in the envelope, gave me the strangest look, and then just walked into his office and closed the door. I heard him pick up the phone, probably to laugh with his buddies about the whole thing, so I went up to my room…I mean, the room he had me staying in. I skipped supper that evening, but that wasn’t unusual.

The first foster home they sent me to, the Sunday everything happened, didn’t last long. After the social worker told me I’d killed my family, she handed me a backpack with a couple of changes of clothes and toiletries and drove me to the Barton’s place. I was introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Barton, and shown to a bedroom. I flopped down on the bed and didn’t move, except to go to the bathroom, until Tuesday morning. Mrs. Barton kept bugging me to come out and get something to eat, or join the family in something or other. Her requests gradually turned into demands. I ignored them all. Then on Wednesday afternoon, the social worker turned up again. Mrs. Barton knocked on the bedroom door and opened it, and she walked in followed by the social worker. Then she turned on her heel and walked out without a word to me. The social worker looked down at me, then lifted up the still unopened backpack and told me to follow her.

So, I did. She drove me to Jake Weston’s house. My current foster dad. She didn’t say much while she drove me there, after I ignored her first couple of attempts to ask me how I was doing, or start some other conversation, other than to say I’d like it there, and that he was very laid back and easygoing, and very experienced.

She was right, in a way. I did the same routine, flopped down and ignored the world. Though I was weak enough to succumb to my hunger and eventually ate some of the food he kept leaving for me. At least until Friday morning, when my new foster dad knocked on the bedroom door, and after waiting and not getting a response, opened it slowly. Then, upon seeing me, he told me to go have a shower, as I was starting to really stink, then to come downstairs ready to go out.

I did so, wondering what the third foster home was going to be like. But, instead, he drove me downtown, to a big office building, where I met Dr. Kirk.

Dr. Kirk was hard to figure out. He looked old, but acted real young. Like, almost childishly silly young. Then, I figured it out. It was a trick. Some kind of psych stuff to get me disarmed, to open up. I couldn’t allow that, so I just sat there, during my thrice weekly sessions with him, with my arms crossed. Sometimes I napped a bit, which, strangely, he didn’t seem to mind. He’d talk, sometimes. The odd time he’d play a game, cards or a board game or something, usually something that was either one or two player, so he’d invite me to play, but didn’t seem to mind when I didn’t answer, then he’d play himself. I guess it was boring sitting there with me like that, so he had to pass the time somehow.

But he’d talk, while he played. I learned his tricks. I caught myself a few times, starting to answer his questions, or almost laugh at something funny, or get mad when he was trying to rile me. By now, I had him figured out. I just sat there. I had learned how to turn off everything, so I wouldn’t listen to him. Just zone out. It was almost pleasant.

That’s how it went, until that Friday in March, when I brought home my report card.


That Friday evening, while I sat in the bedroom at Mr. Weston’s house, my cell phone rang.

That was unusual enough, those days. After the fire, I had learned to just turn it off. It was easier than listening to my friends trying to console me, when they didn’t realize they should be yelling at me. And the endless supportive text messages. After a while, when they figured it out, it quieted down, and I sometimes forgot to turn it off after school. See, I usually had it on so I could listen to music on the bus ride home. I did that because then I didn’t have to talk with people. People tend to ignore other people when they had earphones in their ears. Even more so when they stared down at their lap while wearing earphones. It was almost as effective as not being there.

Anyway, the only time my phone rang now, when I forgot to turn it off, was some stupid telemarketer. Or, more rarely as time went on, when Scott tried to call or text. And that hadn’t happened for a couple of weeks now.

So it rang, and I glanced over at it, and saw Scott’s picture on the screen. He was smiling widely in that picture, with a splotch of ice-cream dripping down a corner of his mouth, the sun shining brightly in his hair and on his face and his naked upper body. I remember when I took the picture, last summer at Riverside Waterpark. Then I realized what I was doing, remembering, and reached over to turn off the phone. But the call had gone to voicemail, so I didn’t bother turning it off, and a moment later the phone made the chirp that told me I had a message.

Just then, for the very first time since I killed my family, something occurred to me. So I looked over at the phone and stared at it, then frowned. Just how the hell was that thing still connected? Dad used to pay the bill for me, after I gave him the money from my flyer delivery job. It hadn’t been paid in months. It should have been shut off, a long time ago.

So, I got curious, which was awfully unusual for me these days. I picked up my phone, and punched in the code that would read out my balance to me. The recorded voice told me I owed zero dollars and zero cents. So, somebody was paying the bill for me. Why would they do that? And who?

Then, seeing the voicemail icon flashing, I again succumbed to curiosity, and listened to Scott’s voicemail.

His voice didn’t sound like it used to when he left me messages. As time went on it lost its humor and friendliness, and became more tentative and hesitant. Later, it sounded a bit frustrated, and resigned. This message, it sounded, well, different. Sad, still frustrated but, I think, ever so slightly angry. It was as if he was trying to hide it, but I know Scott and I know what I heard.

Well, about time. Finally. I have no idea why he was so slow on the uptake, but he was finally getting pissed at me. Like he should be.

But, there was something else, too. Something that wasn’t there before. A bit of steel, a touch of determination.

“Randy,” the message started, “I got my report card today. How’d you do? I got all A’s, well, one A minus, but that’s ’cause I don’t like Ms. McPhearson…” He tailed off, then his voice changed to what I described, the steel, “Listen, that’s not why I called. I want…I need to talk to you. I know you don’t want to talk to me, you’re probably still mad at me, but I’m…” There was a several second hesitation before he continued, “…real worried about you.”

This was new territory for Scott. At least with me. We never talked like that. Except for once. And why in the world did he think I’d be mad at him? So, even though I almost just hit the end button, I kept listening. He was really forcing the words now. I could tell. “Listen, your… foster dad, he called me, he’s real worried too, Randy. Like, scared. Or something.”

I was confused. Totally confused. First off, how the hell did my foster dad know about Scott? Or how to get hold of him? Second, why would he bother? Being annoyed I could almost understand, or at least frustrated. I was pretty much fucking up his cozy life, being here all the time. I mean I know he got money for it, but still, I know he must be pretty much fed up. That’s why I kept trying to just stay in the bedroom, out of his way. That’s why I kept cleaning and vacuuming when he was out, too. I tried to make sure everything was absolutely immaculate. Spotless. Though that kind of kept backfiring. For some reason he almost looked sad when he saw that, when I looked at him to see his reaction when he got home and saw it. I got the feeling he’d have been happier if the TV room was strewn with dirty dishes and empty wrappers and pop cans, with the TV left on too loud. Very strange.

Scott’s message continued, “Anyway, I was going to call even before that. Listen, I don’t care how mad you are, we need to talk. I know the other guys have stopped calling you, ’cause they know you don’t want them to, but I know they’re worried too. Everyone just goes quiet when anyone mentions your name…” He hesitated again, then his voice took on more of that determination I was talking about, “Goddammit, Randy! Call me back! Please?!”

The message ended with a loud click. I think he must’ve put the phone down real hard before picking it up again and remembering to click the end button.

I turned the power off on my phone, and stuck it in a drawer in the desk, under some papers. Then I took it out again, pulled off the back cover, removed the battery, and put it and the phone back under the papers and closed the desk drawer firmly.

Scott’s message kept playing in my mind. Not the words, but his tone. His frustration, anger. I think it’s kind of obvious by now, but I’m a bit slow, and real, real, selfish. I finally figured it out. He was feeling ignored. Abandoned.

It made sense. But I didn’t know how to deal with this. I had to do something. I wasn’t used to doing anything anymore. Here I was, trying to save everyone from having to deal with me, and somehow even that was causing grief in the people who deserved better.

Half an hour later, I had it figured out. I was a bit nervous, kind of out of practice, but I knew what I had to do. So, I pulled the phone back out of the drawer, put in the battery, and powered it up.

Then I phoned Scott.

My heart was hammering wildly while I listened to his phone ring. I had a huge lump in my throat. I didn’t want to do this. I really, really didn’t. But, I knew I had to. So I resisted the urge to hang up.

I heard Scott answer, just when I thought it was going to go to voicemail. “Hello?” he said.

You know how when you know someone real well, you can read all kinds of things into how they say something? Even just one word? This was like that. I knew, just from the way he said ‘hello’ that he was excited, scared, surprised, and hopeful when he saw it was me calling. That just made it harder.

I kept it short. I had to, or I’d mess it up. “Scott, meet me at the table in forty-five. We’ll talk.”

That’s all I said. I waited for his answer. Which seemed a long time coming. Then it happened again. He said, “Okay. Forty-five minutes.” And he hung up. But what his voice really said was, “Oh boy! Really?! Cool! And scary. What’s this about? What’s going to happen? Will it be good? Will it be bad?”

I know, that’s a lot to read into three words, but believe me, he somehow packed it all in there.

I shoved my phone in my pocket and, for the first time since I got here five months ago, knocked on my foster dad’s office door and asked him for permission to go out. I told him I was meeting my friend Scott at the park.

I have no idea what he was thinking. He kept staring at me, examining my expression, blinking, looking for…what? He seemed to be really thinking hard. But, he finally assented, “Okay, Randy. Have fun. Be home by nine, please.”

I nodded once, and turned around, worried he’d see something on my face and begin an inquisition. I found my shoes, pulled on a hoodie, and slipped out the door.

It’s hard not to think while you walk. So I did. Mostly I just brooded. And worried, mostly about what I needed to do. But I planned a bit too, and strategized the easiest way. It’s easier, somehow, when you know somebody real well, know all their triggers. I got to the bus stop, boarded the bus, found a seat near the back and sat down and stared out the window, while the bus bounced its way back to what used to be home.

‘The table’ where I told Scott to meet me was a picnic table in the park near my… I mean near Scott’s house. We always sat there when we were in the park. It was across a grassy field from a bunch of playground equipment. The grassy field was where we all used to play football, and soccer, and frisbee, and other games. The playground equipment was where Scott and I met, when we were both eight years old. We had a lot of history in this little park.

The bus lurched to a stop after I pulled the cord and I stepped off into the cloud of diesel fumes. It noisily pulled away and I looked across the park, fighting with my emotions, and saw Scott sitting on top of the table. Staring right at me.

I swallowed and squeezed my eyes shut hard, looking down so Scott wouldn’t see, then walked across the grass towards him.

“Hi Randy…” he said, his voice tailing off quietly when he saw my expression.

I looked at him in the eye. “Don’t call me again you faggot.” I said.

His reaction came oh so close to making me completely change my mind. I thought I hated myself before but now I’d really done it. I was truly the most awful pile of putrid scum sucking shit the world had ever seen. I could barely stand myself. But I could bear less seeing Scott do this to himself over someone like me. Short term pain was better than long term. Or so I figured while lying on the bed earlier after listening to Scott’s voicemail.

But I had doubts. Except it was too late. I had to play this through.

Scott was suddenly so pale I thought he’d faint. His mouth opened about half-way. His eyes widened in shock. And fear.

Scott. Looking at me. In fear.

Oh fuck, what have I become?

“You’re a fag,” I continued, hating myself more with every word, “and you suck dick like a loser you pansy.” I’m pretty sure he was about to throw up. But I needed anger, not fear, so I abandoned my original plan and went right for the jugular. “Your sister sucks better than you, by the way. Very talented.”

Oh, that did it. His sister was a year younger than us and had a developmental disorder. Scott was very protective of her. To say the least. Nobody teased Melissa. Nobody.

I watched his eyes. Shock, and surprise. Then it began, smoldering anger. I decided to twist the knife a bit. “I told your mom about you, by the way. She was so disgusted.”

See, like I said, when you know someone as well as I knew Scott, you know what made them mad, what they were worried about, what were sore spots. I had aimed carefully.

He was angry now. I saw his face screw up. I waited, sneering at him. I knew what was coming. I saw him clench his fist, roll his shoulder back.

Finally, here it comes. He finally sees what I am, that I’m not worth his time. And, I thought as I watched his fist wind up, I was going to get a bit of what I deserved.

So of course, naturally, as always, I fucked up. I just had to get a final comment in. “I told your dad too. He almost threw up. I don’t think he’ll ever talk to you again.”

Scott loves his dad. For good reason. I mean, he loves his mom too, but it’s different with his dad. Scott’s dad is awesome. He loves Scott. He’s there for Scott. He understands Scott, he’s the most open, non-judgmental, fair, and honest person I have ever met. Nothing, and I mean nothing, would make him stop caring about Scott. And Scott knew that. He knew that I knew it too. I had over-played my hand.

Scott just stared at me, mid wind-up. Then he dropped his hand and his shoulders relaxed. His expression changed from anger to confusion to the saddest expression I have ever seen. “Oh, Randy. What are you doing?” he asked.

Once again, the rest of it, unspoken, was, “I know what you’re trying to do. You’re busted. It won’t work, and it’s kind of pathetic, and I don’t get it, and what the hell is wrong with you?”

I saw all this in an instant.

For the very first time in over five months tears came to my eyes. Hot, sudden, huge tears. I don’t know why. The timing was completely unexpected. I don’t know where they came from. I just know I messed up. Again.

So, as Scott opened his mouth to say something, or ask something, and reached out with a hand, I turned and ran.

He started to chase me but we both knew I was faster, even as out of shape as I was. He stopped before I even got out of the park to the sidewalk. I just kept going though, running down the street and across traffic, hearing but not listening to the horns and tires screeching. I kept going, running and crying. My lungs searing, tears falling, my vision blurry. A small part of me wondered what the people around me must have been thinking, seeing me run past like that. How pathetic.

I slowed to a walk. Not because I wanted to but because I had to. I kept seeing Scott’s sad look. That look in his eyes.

I thought about the last time we’d spent any time together. That Saturday night when everything changed. It was late, and we had just got out of his hot tub in the backyard and went to his room to change before bed. I remembered Scott’s voice, his laugh, that smile, and his soft words, the feeling of his hands, his body, his lips, for the first time ever, on me. The hot, wonderful feeling of his hardness on my lips. The wonder of it. The newness, and the daring. The talk we had afterwards, about what it meant. Our fears and our hopes. How we fell asleep holding each other. Then, the next day, the hug, and his eyes, before I walked home that Sunday afternoon.

Only that didn’t happen. I had no home.

I guess there’s something true about feeling bad, feeling weak, vulnerable, and sad. You look like a victim. I had just looked up to realize what part of town I was in, and really would rather not be, when three rather unwholesome types came out of a bar and decided I might be a fun target for them to prove to each other how tough they were.

It only took them a few moments to find out I didn’t have any money and that my old phone was not good enough for them. My phone was thrown to the ground, smashed, and pretty soon I met a similar fate. I could feel their boots kick me. I nodded slightly to myself as I felt the pain. Finally it was happening. They were doing what Scott should have. This. This is what I deserved.