Fiction: Scott Hutchison

The Boy Who Barked

Scott T. Hutchison

 
Jackie Bronehauer was an animal. Seriously, that’s what we all said. Something was beyond wrong with that kid. Jackie had always had one of those special aides following him around from class to class, but in his particular case I never saw where that helped any. There were times in school when a teacher would be trying to do something semi-important like explaining how drones chase Queen Bees and die after mating mid-air, and Jackie would go into ruckus mode, making noises from the back of the room; before you knew it he was sniffing and romping and wagging his tongue while the poor aide was grabbing at his baggy shirt trying to sit him back down—then Jackie’d go to ground under a table, barking and growling like a dog. It might have been funny the first couple of times we ever saw him go canine, but after that, it was kind of scary.

Jackie started going to Gifford Middle School in sixth grade, so I’d served three years’ time with him in my class. And I guess you get used to people, no matter what the weirdness. So I simply didn’t think about Bronehauer; he was below notice. But that was before the day some of my friends started bugging me about how Jackie had a crush on my little sister, how he’d waited around the seventh grade lockers four mornings in a row and given her a grubby handful of wild flowers he’d picked off the side of the road—and that was something I had no intention of getting used to.

Over three years’ time kids had developed all kinds of inspired ugly variations on Jackie Bronehauer’s name, everyone vying to be inventively clever with taunts that, if you kept them up long enough, sent that goofy Chihuahua-boy into a yipping fit—but when I cornered Jackie after school, grabbed him by his collar and slammed him up against a brick wall, I didn’t use any of those names; I wanted Jackie to focus on what I had to tell him: he couldn’t chase after my sister, and her name couldn’t get associated with his. I wanted to protect my sister—from Bronehauer, and from the kids who loved dishing out crap in his direction. Someone turned the corner and stopped—Ashlee Barns, the prettiest girl in school. And she was staring at me. I had Jackie by the neck, my fist raised, and I froze too, waiting for Ashlee to say something, but she didn’t. Instead, we traded uncomprehending glances. Jackie giggled and I pulled him forward and slammed him back against the wall saying shut up, but when I turned to look at Ashlee again she was already darting down the walkway. My head buzzed and I struggled to remember what I was doing as the twisting cloth in my hand brought things into focus. I glared down at Jackie.

“Listen up, dog-breath,” I hissed, “You’re gonna stop this nonsense of giving my little sister flowers. Hear me?” Jackie was a scraggly kind of kid, a bizzaro little nothing who always wore t-shirts that were three times too big for him, along with baggy dirty blue jeans and the oldest, most scuffed up pair of unstrung basketball sneakers I’ve ever seen. His eyes were too big for his bean-shaped head, giving him a perpetually scared look in the upper part of his face—but his mouth was always, always smiling, and between the pug-dog eyes and the steady grin you could almost see and hear the gears of his mind spinning in Jackie-World, and it made you want to look away because you didn’t really want to know what went on in that odd out-on-the-edges place.

Then it bubbled out of him in a smily, high-pitched spitting stream: “Your sister said ‘hi’ to me last week. She said ‘Hi, Jackie.’”

“Shut up!” I cut him off, cinched his collar tighter, all the while holding a fist directly across from his freaked-out crust-cornered eyes. “This is simple. I’m gonna say this one time: go near my sister again, I’ll pound you into the ground. You got that?” I peeled Jackie off the wall, then shoved him hard back into it. Bony shoulder blades popped against the solid bricks.

Jackie wavered in my grasp, breathing hard, but kept right on smiling.

I could feel my lips peel back in a feral, biting sneer, feel my blood approaching boiling point, but I’d delivered the message—one more shove against the wall and I walked away. Then I heard his voice call out, “I wouldn’t hurt your sister. I wouldn’t hurt anybody. Hurting somebody is stupid.” I spun on my heel, ready to thrash Jackie. Before I could make another move that crazy kid let loose with a howl to the heavens and bolted away.

*

I don’t know. I’ve had this, like, feeling, all school year so far that high school kids seem to have a lot of things figured out. I can’t wait to move up there. I make it a point to wait after my gym class to talk to the older guys filing in. They talk about cool clothes and novels and chemistry class, about parties and girls. While playing basketball, they look at ease inside their bodies when they slash to the hoop for a layup, make it appear effortless when lofting a ball from outside the three-point line for a swish. Me and my eighth grade buddies can only barely hit the backboard sometimes. We still talk about baseball cards and video games.

What’s maddening is that when I hear the high school boys talk about their lab class, Jackie Bronehauer two weeks ago during a science lesson is all I can think about. It happened right after I’d threatened Bronehauer by bouncing him on the wall. Mr. Nazer had given us yellow onions, and he’d instructed us on how to properly use razor-sharp scalpels, cutting thin layers to place on glass slides for viewing. We were looking at their simple cell structures under microscopes. I liked the way Ashlee Barnes’ nose crinkled up at the sharp smell, her and most of the girls unhappy about the assignment. It was actually kind of cool, seeing the way all of the cells fit together to form a whole, complete structure.

Jackie Bronehauer’s aide must have been sick for the day. She was always Jackie’s lab partner, since nobody else would partner up with him. So there we were, trying not to cry with fresh onion stinging at our eyes, and he was working by his lonesome, leaning down close and smelling Petri dishes and nobody was really paying much attention to him. Me and my friend David were working at the station next to him; I was tolerating Bronehauer—he had apparently taken my words to heart and hadn’t gone near my sister since I’d put the word on him. But then, for the first time since I’d jacked him up, Bronehauer spoke to me.

“Look under my microscope. Look.” Jackie smiled his squirrelly smile and gestured in a sweeping motion with his right hand at the microscope, his left hand behind his back like a pitiful little doorman.

I don’t know why I decided to look. Maybe I felt like I could do this for Jackie since he did what I’d told him to do. What was strange about the whole deal was that my little sister Tiffany really wasn’t that happy with me when I told her Jackie wouldn’t be bothering her anymore. Actually, she got kind of mad, tossed her head full of strawberry blonde curls and told me that, since the start of school, she’d seen Jackie eating all by himself every day, outside near the boxwood hedges, with kids walking by ragging on him, so saying ‘hi’ to him and accepting the flowers was no big thing—something I’d never understand. “At least Jackie has a heart, unlike you!” Tiffany gyrated around, the tips of her hair stinging the edge of my face. Then she stomped away, calling back over her shoulder, “Boys take so much longer than girls to mature. But don’t worry, Big Brother, I still have high hopes for you. ” What a mess. Anyway—I looked through the eyepieces of Jackie’s microscope, and all I could see was red. Jackie smiled, still holding his hand behind his back. There were moving shapes under the slide; it was a whole different world of cells. I couldn’t quite help myself—I was fascinated. Added to that: in my peripheral vision I noticed a scalpel on the black lab top, a splotch dripping off of its silver surface. Then it hit me—not an onion cross section. Jackie leaned in, close by my ear, saying “I don’t know much about science, but I know what’s in there. There’s a chemical rush flowing through that stuff that makes you do all sorts of things you, like, can’t control.” A quick “Yip!” got away from him before he gnashed his words down into a small growl.

I grunted and flinched back, and so did Jackie, though the smile immediately resurfaced. I heard his shoulder blades clack inside his shirt. His voice sounded low, guttural. “See? You’re looking at laughter—you’re looking at liquid pain. Strange how it all gets mixed up. There’s sweetness; chaos; everything pulsing, moving, everything fighting—there’s calm, there’s a big building storm. And sometimes, when you’re looking real close, you even catch sight of love.” Then Jackie started barking non-stop. Mr. Nazer asked him to be quiet, then firmly commanded him—though when he saw the leaking hand he must have realized he had to act, and he started chasing Jackie with a wad of paper towels while the rest of us sought shelter behind the big teacher’s desk, hoping to stay away from Jackie’s animal wildness. But Nazer couldn’t catch the crazy kid and had to slam the intercom, begging the office for assistance. Chairs toppled, beakers crashed—I huddled back, trying to blot out the noise, the words Jackie had whispered. There was something dangerous in that drop of blood, in the red dashing past us painting the room, and foreign cells whispered over me, pulsated through me, whining and whimpering at first before building into a steady roar.

*

I’ve known Ashlee Barns all my life. Starting with kindergarten, it’s like we’ve had every class together over the years. We’ve always been friendly, but that’s always been about it. So when Nazer decided to change everybody’s science partners today, putting boys with girls so we wouldn’t gender clump, I ended up with Ashlee, which is fine, no big deal. Kinda good, in fact. That’s just part of what I’m thinking when my mom picks me up from basketball practice. Tiffany’s already in the car in the front seat, and I usually make her get out and ride in the back—if Mom lets me get away with it—but I don’t even try this time.

I just want to be alone, figure out why I had so much fun being Ashlee’s partner. When I cut open our earthworm for Mr. Nazer’s dissection lesson, she helped hold the sides back to pin it down. The worm was so small lying on its wax tray that our hands fumbled together. The worm and dirt had an odd odor, but Ashlee had her own lush, delicate smell, like some bright colored bloom in my mother’s summer gardens, and I had to fight inside myself to pay attention to the dissection. Ashlee giggled at how gross it all was, and I laughed too, though I didn’t really think it was that bad.

My mom sometimes drops off food baskets for the Gifford Community Church’s outreach program, and this time, when she picks me up, we still have one left. She puts the car in drive. I get lost in my thoughts for a while, then I notice we’re out at the edge of town where there’s a stretch of power lines looming across the old country road. I’ve been here before. Whenever I’d ride my bike out this way in the summer, neighborhood kids racing around laughing while picking and eating wild blackberries, I’d hear the crackle of the electricity overhead. I’m suddenly reminded of one of those berry-picking trips. Ashlee was there. I remember how the electricity sort of makes your hair stand up, and I asked her if she ever wondered about how loose volts might be wreaking some kind of weird effects inside our bodies, and then I jiggled my front wheel like I was losing it. Ashlee laughed at how weird I was.

The house destined for the charity basket is beneath the power lines, where the black top turns to dirt. The place is maybe three rooms big, and there’s this dull, grayish plastic over the windows. It could have used a good coat of paint maybe ten years ago—now it’s more or less just exposed wood with a few paint chips hanging on. Mom says for us to stay in the car.

The sun’s setting. Got some streaks of crimson and bright yellow in it—kinda pretty behind such a spooky old house. The light’s getting a bit tricky, but there’s enough for me to see Mom go up the rickety porch steps and knock on the door. Tiffany is all turned around in her seat, trying to tell me about how they’d made clay figures in art class and she’d made a Black-Eyed Susan, painted it, and given it back to her art teacher to fire in the kiln. Tiff has it in her mind to give it away as a Christmas present to somebody who might have need of its cheerful appearance. I try to ignore her. There’s too much going on inside my skin. There’s Ashlee, who said “hi” to me in the gym lobby when I came out of practice. She was in her cheerleading outfit, she and the other girls were making signs with the different basketball players’ names on them to use at a pep rally. Ashlee was working on a bright-colored poster—hers had my name on it. I can’t stop thinking ‘bout how I tried to wipe the goofy smile off my face, how I fumbled trying to say I’d see her tomorrow in class.

There’s a figure in the doorframe of the ramshackle house, and though the light isn’t good I can just make out the oversized shirt, the huge bulk of pants, even the laziness of the shoe strings never tied. Tiff’s yammering on about how small acts of kindness like a flower can change people, and I lean toward the window watching as the crooked figure gives a little under the weight of the basket. Then a burly arm yanks him back and slams the door in my mother’s face. As she returns shaking her head and gets in the car, I’m trying to deal with the electric crackle that blazes up all around me. How do I handle this jolt running down my spine making everything inside of me spark? My eyes burn around the edges. I feel blood pulsing through my veins carrying all sorts of answers inside of me if I can just listen. If I can just put it all together, maybe I could feel comfortable, complete. But for now I’m beyond confused, I’m suddenly out the door and down on all fours, scrabbling on my hands and knees at the sharp rocks and dirt and I don’t even know how to answer my mother and my sister when they jump out frantically yelling at me asking what in the world I’m doing—I don’t know, I don’t know, it’s all mixed up, I see the outline of a figure behind the dim layer of grey and I hear his call and I answer, wondering if Ashlee can hear me, hear me howling, wondering if she’s as scared as me.
 

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Scott T. Hutchison’s work has appeared in The Georgia Review and The Southern Review. He has new work forthcoming in Amoskeag, Kestrel, Aethlon, and The Waterhouse Review.

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