I woke up in the back of an ambulance. It was dark outside. Through the open doors I saw that we were still in that same alley. I saw an IV drip in my arm and the bandages in various other places. The attendant inside with me was turned slightly away from me, and was talking on a phone. “No, no ID. We think it's that Jordan kid. Randall Jordan, I've already talked with Jake. Yeah, Jake Weston. That's his foster dad, if you can believe it. He's meeting us at the hospital. I've already called for a tow and Rob and Jolene's rig is on its way to pick the kid up.”
The driver turned slightly and saw I was awake and listening to him. Obviously I couldn't be that badly injured if we were still there. Then I heard once again what I realized I had heard several times before. The starter motor of the ambulance cranking over fruitlessly. Okay, that's why we were sitting there. And it explained a bit of the attendant's conversation.
The paramedic hung up and seeing that I was looking at him, he smiled at me, “Is your name Randall Jordan?”
I nodded hesitantly. Or rather tried to. I seemed to have one of those neck brace things on me. So I just grunted a yes.
He nodded, still smiling, “Just a few more minutes and we'll get you out of here. A few mechanical difficulties.” He saw I had no intention of answering, so he continued, “Give me ten seconds, I'm just going to the front to check something.”
He climbed out and I saw my chance. I sat up and groaned, fell back, then tried again, this time only using only my left arm for leverage.
I almost fell headlong out of the doors of the ambulance, back onto the spot where I had spent some time lying after the gentle ministrations of my accosters. I caught myself, just, with a hand on the door frame, making my bruised ribs scream in protest.
I relished the pain. It was the most alive I've felt for five months. So instead of adjusting my footing and releasing the handle I put more weight on it as I climbed down. Hearing the paramedics finishing their conversation I hurried, well, I painfully limped as quickly as I could manage around the corner of the building. I realized I still had the remains of the IV tubing hanging from my arm, not to mention that stupid collar around my neck, so I dealt with those as I crossed the street and tried to find somewhere to hide.
I had no intention of going to the hospital. My foster dad and social worker and Dr. Kirk would all be summoned and attempt to do their thing. Doctors and nurses would be bustling around me, treating me and talking to me, taking away their precious time from more deserving patients. So, I'd hide for a while, then go back to Mr. Weston's house, and lie down for a while. Maybe I'd heal.
It was about 11:30 at night according to the kitchen clock when I walked into Mr. Weston's house. He was talking to a police officer when I walked in. The cop was writing down notes in a little notebook, while Mr. Weston explained something. They both stopped short and stared at me when I walked in. Mr. Weston opened his mouth, to ask something or yell at me, or who knows what, but I wasn't all that interested so I started walking towards the bedroom. Movement on my right caught my eye and I turned my head.
Scott sat at the kitchen table. He was staring at me, his eyes flitting over the cuts and bruises, the torn and dirty clothes, then at my eyes. I couldn't meet them, so I looked down at the floor immediately, then just turned and walked out of the kitchen.
It was odd, seeing Scott sitting there. Unexpected. Incongruous. As I closed the bedroom door I began to understand. He was the last person I was with. Of course they'd ask him what happened.
Somehow, I'd done it again. Managed to upset people's lives.
Scott knocked and asked to come in to talk to me that night, before he called his dad to come drive him home. I told him to go away. He did.
I knew I couldn't avoid what happened next, so I went along with it. Mr. Weston took me to the clinic and they thoroughly checked me over and pronounced me beat up. Which I already knew. Apparently I was reasonably okay though. I guess I can't even get beat up right.
I finally got back and into bed at 2:30 AM. Mercifully, I fell asleep within minutes.
After the weekend I didn't go back to school for two days. When I finally did, the bus rolled up to the stop a block away, I waited for it to lurch to a stop, and I exited the back door, still looking rather worse for wear, and that's when I saw it.
Okay, I knew what I was. I knew what I was worth. I knew what my life will be, and honestly that was still more than I deserved. And I was fine with all that. I understood. Really, I did. Hell would be too much a kindness for the likes of me, and this life, despite everything, offered comforts and kindnesses of which I am woefully undeserving. But, I decided I will bear it stoically. I can do nothing else, lest I burden others.
However, there was still one thing I could not deal with.
There were four of them, about halfway down the alley near the bus stop, whispering and giggling. I ignored them at first, there didn't seem to be any reason to do otherwise. Until I heard the flick of a lighter and the then the sound and smell of burning paper. The kids, all four of them around twelve years old, were playing with a lighter. Lighting paper and dropping it against the side of the building and watching it burn.
A wooden apartment building. No doubt with families inside.
“HEY!!!” I found myself yelling while running towards them down the alley, my bruises momentarily forgotten. “What the FUCK do you think you're doing!?!” I was raging. My temper, just like that, boiled over. I was snarling, seeing red, absolutely livid. Stupid kids, didn't they have any idea what could happen?!?
As I got close they scattered, my yelling and the ugly snarl on my face scaring them away. But, the one with the lighter, still holding a burning piece of paper, had nowhere to run. He was in the corner between a dumpster and the building with me coming straight at him. He stared at me in fear.
I reached him and grabbed his shirt, twisting my fist in the fabric and half lifting him. My right hand balled itself into a fist and I pulled it back. I heard myself still yelling something, loud, my mouth only inches from the cowering kid's ear.
His eyes, seeing my fist, squeezed hard shut, his body frozen in fear. The burning paper finally reached his fingers. We could both smell burning skin before he dropped it. It landed in the pile of a dozen or so other pieces of balled up paper the boys had assembled, which immediately caught fire.
“FUCK!!” I yelled. I dropped my hand from the kid's shirt and began stomping on the papers. The kid almost fell over, then stood there staring at me, leaning against the building.
“Don't just stand there like an idiot, asshole! Help me!” I yelled, still grinding burning paper under my shoes.
He unfroze, and perhaps surprisingly, did help. In only a few seconds, there was no more fire.
I looked at the kid. He was staring at me, looking bewildered. I finally realized why. I was breathing hard, shivering like a wet dog scared of a thunderstorm, and giant tears were flowing freely down my face.
“FUCK!” I yelled, making the kid flinch. I balled up my fists, trying to get control of myself. That only made the kid look scared again. So, with herculean willpower, I unclenched my fists then slumped down against the building, right in the black soot and half burned papers. I closed my eyes and made a supreme effort to reach for my calm.
I found a frayed corner of it and pulled it over my mind, relaxing my breathing, enveloping my thoughts with nothingness. My heart slowed.
Minutes later, I opened my eyes.
To my utter shock the kid was still there. Sitting cross legged right in front of me. Looking at me with what could only be puzzled concern.
“You all right, then?” he asked in a strong Newfoundland accent when he saw me looking at him.
I looked at him. His clothes, which I now recognized as the uniform for the chartered primary school two blocks west of my own, were a wreck. His tan pants were marked with soot near the bottom. His shirt was wrinkled, and a button was missing where I had grabbed him. His tie was marked in soot and almost pulled off. One smooth pale cheek had yet another smudge of soot on it. I'd come within a hairsbreadth of punching the crap out of him. He was a mess.
And he was asking if I was all right.
Eventually, I answered. “No, never again. But I think I'm back to normal now.” I moved to stand up, ignoring his quizzical expression.
He started to ask me something but I interrupted, not wanting to answer the questions I saw in his eyes, “You're late for school,” I said.
He looked askance at me and bit the left side of his lower lip, “Yeah.” He looked down at himself and shrugged, “I have to go home and change now anyway.”
I couldn't help myself. “Gander?” I asked, referring to his accent.
He grinned for the first time. “Not bad. Close enough.”
I nodded, “What are you doing in Alberta?”
He began studying me again. I don't think he expected any questions from me. Neither did I, actually. But he answered, “Lighting fires and almost getting beat up by the looks of it.”
I looked for a grin, and eventually found a trace of it behind his efforts to hide it. Still, I wasn't happy he was joking about fire. “Why are you trying to hurt all those people?” I waved my arm to encompass the apartment building.
He looked indignant, defensive. Then I saw him looking at the building, at the soot on the ground, at the slight char marks against the side of the building where the heat had begun to affect the wood siding. He stared at the darkened siding, then looked up at the balconies of the apartments above. I saw his indignation evaporate, replaced quickly by realization, and shame. Abashed, he looked back up at me. I expected a childish excuse, or maybe an insincere apology. But instead he ever so slightly shivered and shook his head. Then he looked right in my eyes and said, “I'm a right idiot, aren't I?” He wasn't being sarcastic. He was deadly serious.
I didn't know if I should argue or agree, so I just shrugged, but his silence spurred me to add, “No, you just didn't think ahead.” Then, my own past thundered back and I began shivering again. I closed my eyes and held firmly to my calm, then opened my eyes again.
“You have a real story, don't you?” he asked. “I wonder if I'll ever hear it.”
I was still trying to figure out an answer when he began walking away from me. He looked back over his shoulder, “I'm late. I need to go. Thanks for this. It was right thing for you to do.” He turned his head back in front of him, took another two steps, and turned his head back around again. “My name's Brenton. See you.” He began running and turned the corner, leaving me staring at the spot where he'd just been. I saw the lighter, abandoned on the ground nearby.
I looked down at myself. I'd do, not nearly as much as a mess as Brenton. I brushed off, or rather smeared, some soot on the bottom half of my jeans and on my butt, and made my way to school.
I got a few more than the usual looks that day. I was getting used to people staring at me, looking awkward when they were near, not sure what to say. Most had learned not to say anything. It was easier on both of us. But the looks never stopped. Now, today, after missing a couple of days and turning up not only bruised and beaten, but with ash and soot covering certain strategic areas, I must have really looked a sight.
A few hours later, I had just walked outside with my lunch, thankful the weather was now warm enough that I could do so, and was walking towards an empty table when I heard running feet behind me. I plastered my pleasant but vacuous smile on my face, and turned to politely dismiss whoever it was.
“Jesus, you look like shit,” Scott said.
I shrugged and stared at him. I had learned that if you looked at someone long enough, maintaining eye contact but with no expression, they'd pretty soon feel awkward and find an excuse to be somewhere else.
“Sit down,” Scott said, pointing at the table I was headed towards.
“No, that's okay Scott. Thanks, but I was just going to go see Mr. Wilson about that book report.” I started to walk back towards the school building.
Scott grabbed my shoulder. “Sit.” He looked like he meant it.
I wasn't in the mood for emotion, or drama, so I sat. I figured if I sat there quietly staring for long enough he'd get the message and realize he had better things to do.
Scott sat across from me, his eyes flicking over my body from head to feet. He looked thoughtful, chewing on the left side of his lower lip, which suddenly reminded me of Brenton from this morning.
“I've given you five months.” Scott looked like he expected a response to this.
I didn't give him one.
Undeterred, he continued, “Talk to me. I'm your friend. You're a wreck, and if anything, it's getting worse, not better.”
I stared at him quietly.
“I don't understand. What'd I do?”
I found I couldn't let that go. I couldn't let him think he'd done anything, so I cleared my throat and answered. “Nothing! Why would you think you did anything wrong? And I don't get to have friends.”
Unexpectedly, Scott looked angry. “What?! Who told you that? Your social worker? Your foster dad? And here I was starting to think he was nice. If that's what he said I'm going to raise one helluva….”
“No! Scott! Stop it!”
He calmed down and waited for me to continue. I watched him do this. I remembered how he'd taught me how, back more than a year ago when my emotions tended to rule me. How he'd shown me how to reach for my serenity, my stability, my calm, and pull it over myself like a blanket. Nobody else could have shown me that. I wouldn't have had the patience to let them. But he did.
I didn't want to but I found I needed to explain. Actually, when I thought about it I wondered why I hadn't done so earlier. Once he knew, I was sure he'd have no problems leaving me alone.
I took a breath, looked down at my uneaten lunch, then up at Scott. “Nobody told me I couldn't have friends. I just can't. Because I don't get to have friends anymore. I don't deserve that.”
Scott started looking at me like I'd said something completely bizarre, so I figured I'd better tell him.
For the first time I said aloud what I knew. “I killed them, Scott.”
Saying that aloud had a strange effect on me. I thought it might, but it wasn't the one I'd expected. I figured I might start crying again. I didn't. Instead it was almost the opposite. I felt, well, almost relieved. I didn't expect that.
Scott knew immediately what I was talking about, and looked, for less than a second, like he was about to argue with me. He seemed to rethink that though, and instead said, “Tell me about it.”
So I did. I don't know why. I wasn't looking for sympathy, or pity. I felt like I was somehow trying to alleviate my guilt by telling him, and was kind of angry at myself for doing so, but I told him anyway.
It didn't take long to tell. I waited for him to sneer at me or spit in my face or hit me or something. Or at least walk away in disgust. I pretended to myself to be surprised when he did none of those things. I have to admit I wasn't surprised at all. It was Scott. I came to the quiet realization that this is precisely why I'd avoided telling him before now. I was afraid he'd give me sympathy, pity, and support. None of which I deserved.
“I have to think about this,” is all he said. “I haven't figured it out yet. But we're not done. Only for now.”
“Scott, no, you need to just leave it alone. I know what happened. Just….leave it. Leave me alone, okay?” I was completely unable to look at him now, and just stared down at my hands.
He got up and stood over me, hands on his hips. “No,” he said. Then he walked away.
I closed my eyes and ignored the fact I was late for my next class.
I wasn't happy. This is exactly what I didn't want to happen. All these people running around trying to help poor old Randy. Why didn't they get it? Why was this week turning out to be so strange?
One other thing happened that week, during our Friday afternoon assembly at school. Something I was going to ignore, as I did pretty much everything, but then I realized it might be a way I could do the tiniest sliver of something useful, not that it'd ever be enough, but something, to make up for what I am.
There was a problem though, one big enough that I almost decided to drop the whole thing.
I couldn't do it alone.
After school on Friday I knocked on my foster dad's office door. He looked up from his laptop and smiled at me. “How are you feeling Randall? The bruises seem to be healing, are the ribs okay? Your leg?”
I quickly nodded to dismiss these unimportant questions. I opened my backpack and pulled out the form I had picked up at the end of the school assembly. I placed it on the desk in front of my foster dad. “Could you sign this please, Mr. Weston? I'd like to enter.”
He ignored the fact I called him 'Mr. Weston' instead of 'Jake' like he'd been asking, and took the form and looked at the colourful bold printed heading.
I watched him smile to himself, a smile I didn't understand, then he took his fancy pen from his pen holder and signed the form with a flourish. He handed it back to me.
“Can I ask why?” he said. “Just for fun? Somehow I doubt that.”
I didn't answer his question, just took the form, gave him a quick thank-you, and went to my room.
Not having a cell phone anymore, I brought the cordless phone from the kitchen with me to my room. Some considerable time later, after changing my mind a dozen times and gathering my courage, my thumb entered the number for Scott's house. I knew he probably wouldn't be home, it being a Friday evening and he'd be out with friends, but I figured I'd try. I couldn't remember his cell number since I just had it as a contact in my phone so I punched in his home number from memory, a number I've known for years.
Scott's dad answered. The first time I'd heard his voice in months. Since the funerals. I tried to slightly disguise my voice and asked for Scott as quickly as possible. It didn't work, of course.
“Randy?!” Scott's dad said, almost yelling, “Oh god, Randy, how are you doing. It's so good to hear your voice. You have no idea how much I've been worried about you. Especially when we haven't seen you for so long.”
“Umm, yeah, thanks Mr. Somners.” I knew he was waiting for more, but I just couldn't.
There was an uncomfortable pause but when he realized I wasn't going to add anything he said, “Well, it's good to hear from you. Listen, if you need anything, anything at all, or just need to talk or whatever, you make sure you come over here. You know Liz and I are always here for you, and Scott of course.”
I squeezed my eyes shut hard, “Umm, thanks Mr. Somners.”
The uncomfortable pause again, then finally, mercifully, he just said, “I'll go get Scott for you. Just a minute.” I could hear him set the phone down.
Scott picked up a minute later, “Randy?”
“Umm, yeah, hi Scott. Sorry I didn't call your cell, I couldn't remember your number with mine smashed. Listen, I need to ask you, well, kind of a favor. Can you come over? Or I could meet you somewhere?” I carefully avoided suggesting I go to his house. I didn't want to be smothered by the unknowing care and support of his family. And I didn't think I could bear to be there. It was the last place I'd been before it happened.
He jokingly, but semi-nervously said, “Well, sure, as long as you aren't going to call me names again.” He added a little fake chuckle at the end. I felt like shit.
“No. Sorry. Listen, it's okay if you can't or you're busy or whatever. I understand. Umm, well, never mind, this is a dumb idea. Sorry I bothered you…”
“Randy!” he interrupted. “I'm on my way to your place. I'm leaving now. See you soon.”
“Umm. I don't…you can't…remember, I don't have a place anymore.” I felt stupid and awkward and foolish.
“Yes you do. Remember, I was there last week, after we met and those assholes beat you. I'm on my way. Bye.” The line went dead. Oh. He meant here. Mr. Weston's place. Weird that he thought it was my place.
Some time later, I don't really know how long since I was just lying on my bed staring at the ceiling, I heard the doorbell ring. I stood up but before I could even leave the room I heard Mr. Weston answer the door. He sounded surprised when he saw Scott standing there. Oops. I forgot to ask him if it was okay if I invited Scott over.
Dejected, I turned around and flopped down on the bed, thinking he'd be turned away since I didn't ask permission first. But I heard Scott say, “Hi Jake! Good to see you again. I'm here to see Randy.”
I could hear Mr. Weston's voice say something in reply, but I couldn't make out the words. Then, Scott again, “No. He invited me. He's expecting me.”
This time I heard Mr. Weston. He said, “Really!? Well how about that? Come in, come in. He's in his room.”
I heard footsteps, and a knock on the door. I opened it. There stood Scott.
I'd almost got used to seeing him, ignoring him, at school. But this somehow really affected me. Scott and me standing there, in a bedroom, looking at each other.
My chest felt tight and breathing became difficult. I closed my eyes and reached for my calm. When I opened them, I saw that Scott was just opening his.
He had done exactly the same thing. Which reminded me where I'd learned it.
So I needed to do it again.
Finally, I was coherent enough to ask him to sit down. He chose my desk chair. Part of me wasn't relieved, but instead was disappointed that he hadn't chosen the bed. A frightened part of me that barely had the nerve to exist anymore but somehow was there all the same. I quickly wrung its neck and shoved it hard down into the recesses of my mind. It had learned to capitulate quickly.
I didn't know how to say what I wanted to say so I just took the form from my desk and pushed it square in front of him.
Scott looked at it. He was puzzled. He read it over carefully, several times. I could see him trying to understand.
He looked up at me, frowning, “A street hockey tournament? The one they mentioned at the assembly?”
“Look what it's for,” I said.
He read aloud, “The fifteenth annual Medicine Hat three-on-three street hockey tournament and fundraiser.”
“Keep going,” I said.
He looked at me, trying to divine my thoughts before turning back and reading, “All proceeds to be divided equally for continued modernization of equipment for the Medicine Hat Fire Department and the Burn Unit of the Medicine Hat Regional Hospital.” His voice tailed off, then, “Oh…”
I launched in, “I'm way out of shape and we'll have to find a crap load of sponsors to make any real impact, but….”
He interrupted, “Randy.” He was looking hard at me.
“Umm, don't take this the wrong way, but…”
Suddenly I felt completely foolish. Of course. I'm so fucking selfish. Why would he want to spend time with me doing this? This is my problem, not his. Especially now, after what I'd told him. He wasn't my friend anymore. I'd ignored him for months. Then my confession. I blushed and looked at the floor, feeling stupid. Before he could say any more I tried to save him from trying to be all polite to me. This time I interrupted, “No. It's okay, I…umm…I don't know why I'm being such an idiot. Sorry. Listen, I know you probably have plans, and I really should get some homework done, so we'll see you at school next week, okay?” I opened the bedroom door, still looking at the carpet.
Eventually I looked up. Scott was looking at me. For some unfathomable reason I was pretty sure he was trying real hard not to cry while he was looking at me. He opened his mouth to say something, but then he just stood up and took the four steps towards the bedroom door. I looked down again, waiting to hear his footfalls down the hallway so I could close the door and blank out my mind.
That's not what he did though. The next thing I knew, I felt his arms encircle me in a hug.
I panicked. What was he doing? People didn't touch me. They shouldn't. Nobody had given me any human contact, except the stupid doctors and paramedics, for five months. I tensed up so hard I think my joints popped. Then, when he didn't let go, I shoved him. Hard.
I didn't mean to do it. But I didn't mean to kill my family either. Scott, completely surprised, fell away from me and tripped over the chair and against the desk, his head hitting the corner. Blood started seeping slowly from just above his ear, while he pulled himself up onto the chair holding his little cut. “Oww.” he started to say. “Sorry, I guess I surprised…”
That's all I heard. After a half second of looking at him in horror I was out the door.
I was in big trouble when I got back. That was a first. Since I'd been here I'd done my best to lie low, to do everything perfectly, to make sure I caused as few problems as possible. Now, it seems, that strategy was failing miserably.
It was about 10:30 according to the kitchen clock when I walked in the house. Mr. Weston was sitting at the kitchen table, a paperback book in his hands. I closed the door behind me and looked at him while he carefully placed a bookmark in his book, laid it gently down on the table and turned to face me. He face was tense and drawn. His jaw clenched tight. I had no idea what to expect. Was he going to kick me out? I didn't think he'd beat me or anything, that just wouldn't fit with what I'd seen, but who knows? I just looked at him and waited.
He stood up, making me flinch slightly. Seeing this, he deliberately slowed his movements and moved purposefully towards the kettle, which he filled and turned on.
“Sit down, Randy.”
“I've given you almost five months,” he said. The echo of Scott's words from our conversation at school. Mr. Weston continued, “I've given you time and space to try and sort things out. That hasn't been hard because, frankly, there's been no overt behaviour problems that I've needed to deal with, other than the constant isolating of yourself.
And, of course, there are your sessions with Dr. Kirk, I didn't want to interfere with his work. However, this is not okay, this running. I know you don't like it, but people are working hard to care for you. To support you. You hurt Scott's feelings, and made him worry. You worried me, too. You don't like it, but people are trying to help. When you push them away, when you run away, well, don't you think that's just a bit selfish?”
There it was. That word. Out there, ringing through the air in harmony with the whistling of the kettle.
Mr. Weston wasn't looking at me. He had stood up and was facing the counter, fixing the tea.
An exothermic reaction, I'd learned in AP science, is one in which the net energy required to break a chemical bond (ΔH) is a negative number. More energy is released than is required to break the bond, so ΔH < 0.
Like fire. Like, say, when a house burns down.
Or, for one of the simplest examples, when hydrogen burns (2H2 + O2 → 2H2O) you get water vapor and a bunch of heat (ΔH = −483.6 kJ/mol of O2).
If the energy of an exothermic reaction is contained in some kind of vessel that won't let it out for, say, five months or so, 'cause he's damned stubborn, then it tends to build up over the length of time this reaction is taking place.
Until it finds a weak spot. Then, if the weak spot fails, that energy can be released all at once. Like, an explosion.
The good news is that the reactants, in this case the emotions of the aforementioned damned stubborn idiot, will be at a lower and less volatile energy state afterwards.
The bad news is that it really sucks for anyone near it when it happens.
So, about that weak spot.
Mr. Weston calling me selfish turned out to be mine.
I just couldn't hold it in anymore, and it came upon me like a storm surge. Just like that. I screamed. I wailed. I yelled. I stamped my feet and pounded my fists on the table. I yelled profanities at myself, mostly consisting of 'selfish fucking prick' and 'self-centered asshole' and 'useless fuck' and variations of that. I eventually petered out, several minutes later, repeating, “I killed them…I killed them…I killed them…” until I couldn't talk anymore, and just sobbed silently to Mr. Weston's completely astounded gaze.
I guess it's true, the stuff about a lower energy state afterwards. Mr. Weston had to literally carry me to bed.