Sticks and Stones
by Angele Gougeon
Copyright © 2016 by Angele Gougeon
Sandra was on her front step when the old truck pulled up in front of the blue house. The truck was a monstrous thing, black paint run through with rust and scratches, missing its rear fender. Even so, the engine sounded healthy, purring like some sleek, giant cat. It rumbled to a stop and a tall, lean, broad-shouldered man unfolded himself from behind the wheel. His eyes moved over the street, over the empty lawns and houses, the motion so quick that Sandra would’ve been missed it if she hadn’t been staring.
‘S not polite, she thought and almost cut her eyes away. She stopped herself at the last second – doing that made people look guilty. Then his gaze caught her, held her like a snare, and she was frozen. She couldn’t breathe when he finally let her go.
The man lifted his hand and tapped it firmly against the roof of the truck.
Two teenage boys tumbled out. They were thin and long-limbed, eyes flickering the same as the man’s had. One was taller than the other, hair lighter than Sandra’s, but darker than his brother’s. They stood side by side and their jeans were ripped and dusty. The shorter one had a smudge of dirt on his right cheek and his shirt hung loose on his frame. They jostled shoulders and the man shot them a look. Then he moved over to the back of the truck where a tarp was pulled taut, sharp angles cutting up into the blue of the plastic.
The man made a sound then – he must have, because the two boys snapped around super-fast, moving as one. Heads all pressed together, they worked the end of the tarp up, the smallest of them disappearing half inside and crawling back out with a couple of old gym bags. For a moment the two boys snickered at each other, half-shoves nearly spilling them over the sidewalk and out onto the road, but another word (and he had to be speaking, even if Sandra wasn’t hearing a thing) and they straightened up, shoulders back. Secret grins worked their ways onto their mouths, eyes smiling at one another.
Must be their father, Sandra figured. No one else would get them to listen like that. Or so she thought. Her father hadn’t given her a look in years – hadn’t been much of a father in just as long.
Their dad’s hair wasn’t quite the light brown of the taller one, and not the honey-blond of the shorter, but almost a mix between the two, as though they’d been the one to make him and not the other way around. It was shot through with silver, thicker around the back right side of his head. His jeans were just as beat up as theirs, faded blue threads trailing at the hems and the stitching of his legs, shirt hidden under a worn brown leather jacket that looked about ten times hotter than Sandra thought she could take, no matter how neat it looked.
The boys scrambled for the two bags and she watched the man sigh, two strong hands reaching them first, arms working the thick straps onto his shoulders as he forced the truck’s squealing tailgate up, pulled the tarp down and started up the front path.
His eyes slid toward her again, dark creases from the corners of his eyes and Sandra blinked hard, made her eyes slow to open, just in time to see the boys look over a second time – Sandra wished the old porch still had its moldy railings so she’d have something to hide behind. The taller one nodded her way, following quickly after the man, boots heavy on the cracked cement. The shorter one flashed a row of teeth at her, so fast Sandra didn’t know if it had been a smile or a snarl, a warning in there somewhere that made a shiver crawl up her spine, and then they were past, up the steps and the screen door banging shut behind them.
She sat for a long time, hands folded beneath her sweating knees.
They didn’t come out again.
The second time Sandra saw them she was at school. The grass had turned yellow from the lack of rain, parched from the steady pounding of the summer sun. The plants were wilting, sprinklers set on automatic and sloshing out so much water that Sandra thought it ought to be illegal.
The school bell was set to ring in ten minutes and Sandra sat on the wooden front bench, ignoring the jostling teenagers shouting across the yard. It was the only sure way to be certain she’d be ignored in turn. Usually. Lucy Myers, pretty as a star and mean as a rattler, was on her way over. She was twelve feet away and looking far too pleased with herself when the black truck pulled up to the curb.
Even if the truck was beat-up, unimpressive and old, it stopped Lucy, who fluffed her hair and pulled out her lip gloss. Some of the chattering monkeys Lucy called friends gathered around her, tittering, bodies poised like reporters on the scene. Sandra just bit her lip, looked down and moved one foot in a loose swing as the two boys climbed onto the street.
They stood together for a long, slow moment, eyes sharp, arm to arm, and a few of the less brave students met their gazes and then looked away. The taller boy smirked, then leaned back inside. Sandra saw his lips move in the dark reflection of the window. When the door was shut and the truck pulled away, Sandra felt the fall of both sets of eyes. The air was thick and her skin twitched and she almost saw a vision of something she didn’t want to see. The eyes left and she could breathe again. The taller boy was nudging the other’s shoulder. The tiniest smile Sandra had ever seen quirked the taller boy’s lips before he turned across the road to where the high school sat, kids smoking out front and cars parked helter-skelter along the faded parking lines of the curb.
It didn’t make her feel any better, knowing there was only one boy left. The seconds passed and the heat dripped down her spine as he made his way up the walk, right toward her. He kept his shoulders hunched, the sleeves of his brown pullover bunched up around his buried hands and eyes flickering all over the place, doing his best to watch everyone as Sandra tried to keep him from catching her staring in return.
One, two, three and his dusty old boots stopped about an inch from the holes in her apple green sneakers. No, she thought. She hoped he’d go away if she didn’t move.
Slowly, Sandra curled the hair out of her face, and brought her head up until she could see his chin. His lips twitched, once, just a bit.
She looked higher.
His eyes were green. He stared intently, like she had food on her face or something.
"You’re our neighbor," he said. It wasn’t a question. His voice was deeper than she expected, husky with a rough rumble, what she imaged a ‘whiskey voice’ always sounded like in the smutty books her mother brought home from the grocery store when they had the money, lined up all pretty on the living room shelf.
Sandra nodded and, for a moment, feared he would offer his hand. Stuck up, the kids used to say when she refused to shake. Rude. But he just shrugged, head finally turning away to look out across the grounds at some of the kids still shuffling around the front door.
"‘M Jack," he said, voice going quiet, like he didn’t want anyone else to hear, and Sandra felt her cheeks burn red, hair swinging forward to hide her again.
"Sandra," she said, and she caught his nod, eyes glinting sideways at her like she was doing to him. Her lips twisted, tried for a smile, but she couldn’t quite manage it. She watched his fingers tighten around the backpack straps on his high shoulders. Her insides shivered.
Lucy Myers decided it was time to intervene, long blonde hair flying out behind her. Her friends cackled unattractively behind their hands. Sandra hurried to her feet, throat working fast and head down as she side-stepped for the door. She brushed by Jack and he turned with her, head snapping around, snake-fast. Sandra jerked, went still, and said, "The bell." Overwhelmed.
He dwarfed her, a good foot taller. He was shorter than his brother and she didn’t want to find out how she’d feel standing next to him. Her shoulders hitched nervously and his lips thinned.
She felt like she was disappointing him somehow.
Lucy reached them and Sandra hurried away, nearly tripping over the stairs in her ratty sneakers as the bell split the air. Lucy’s venom filled the space behind her.
In school, Sandra found out the boy was a year older, and, after his class, the gossip mill told her that the teacher called him Jackson, and that he’d punched a boy afterward for calling him that, too.
Sandra did her best to ignore Jack throughout the day, even though he tried to eat lunch with her and didn’t seem to care for the gossip, the whispers of Jack Sloan following him up and down the hallways. But Sandra didn’t need that kind of attention. After school, she walked home fast, ignoring the black truck pulling up at the curb, and how the older brother’s eyes followed her all the way down the sidewalk as he waited for his little brother.
The third time Sandra saw them it ended with her twitching and gasping on the ground. The third time, Sandra wanted to be anywhere but where she was. She’d managed to avoid Jack for all of two days before he seemed to intentionally take himself out of her way. She still felt their eyes sometimes when she arrived at school, or got home, or snuck out of the house as her parents yelled and yelled at each other. The walls were thin and their voices carried, but Sandra had finished being embarrassed years ago.
It was Saturday evening and she got home just as the Sloan boys were pulling plastic grocery bags out of the back of the black truck. The handles stretched and Sandra could make out the bulky shapes of cans nestled inside.
They worked silently, side by side and, for a moment, she froze, wondering if she could get away with turning around, continuing down the sidewalk and around the whole block until she was sure they’d gone back inside. They scared her a bit. Those boys felt like lions, watching her. They had that single-mindedness to their gazes. A couple of bloodhounds. A couple of dogs on the scent of a trail. A couple of wolves.
She’d seen how wild animals hunted on television. She wouldn’t stand a chance.
Squaring her shoulders, Sandra told herself to buck up. Quietly, she walked by, close to the truck and right past the boys and onto the yellow grass of her house’s broken walkway. They didn’t say a thing. Their shopping bags rustled. Sandra’s breath hitched and she almost wished she had the courage to turn around and tell them to stop watching her. She really wasn’t that interesting.
And then the vision hit as she reached the first step of the porch, and she went down hard.
It happened as it always did, swallowing her swiftly and completely. Intense. Painful. Quick, vivid colors spun beneath her eyelids. Sounds were sharp inside her skull. Fire shot up through her bones. She may have been screaming and she wouldn’t have known. There was smoke in her nose, thick and black, and she couldn’t breathe. It stung her eyes and licked at her skin. Wood and metal crashed down as skin blistered and popped and she knew this wasn’t her, knew it was someone else, someone with a bigger body, bigger boots and darker jeans, and big ol’ hands with scars on the fingers. Men’s hands. Nails blunt and dirty with oil and grease and burning and- The cars were on fire. Paper burned and curled and rags ignited, the cement floor pockmarked by flash fires. Meat withered in her nose and she realized it was her. Him. Dancing embers blackened and burned bone. He screamed and she hoped she was not. He writhed and she really hoped she was not. He was dying, dead, and-
Sandra gasped hard, lungs hurting as she pulled in air, found herself on the ground with grass prickling sharp into her back. The edge of the stairs was under one bent knee, her body pressed hard into the jagged edges of the broken cement, her head mashed into the dry mud. Her fingers curled uselessly for one long moment, clawing against the step and the grass as she breathed, alive.
Her heart didn’t slow when she saw the boys standing over her, sun at their backs and leeching all color from the world, painting everything in shades of black and gray and light.
"You okay?" the taller one asked.
Sandra shook her head, eyes wide, and tried to sit up but couldn’t quite make it. The taller one knelt down beside her, Jack behind him, both of them coiled like springs. The brother didn’t touch – oh, and Sandra was glad for that; she didn’t need another vision being set off – the set of his jaw was wary, wound as tightly as Jack and assessing her with oddly steady eyes. He looked like maybe it’d be kinder just to put her down, put her out of her misery.
The thought made her tremble hard, made her fight to keep it hidden, made her hands spasm and look probably exactly how she didn’t want to be.
"Did—" she asked, gasping hard, making an awful strangled sound, having to raise one hand to make sure her skin wasn’t cracked, that her flesh wasn’t red and black and cooked and falling off the bone. "Did I—"
"Did you what?" and damn if the older brother’s voice wasn’t as wonderful as Jack’s – not quite as deep but softer, like a caress. "Did you what?" he asked again, even softer this time, and his muscles seemed to be relaxing just the slightest. Sandra thought that was good, because she wasn’t a threat, and she didn’t really want to be left alone now, not when she couldn’t even get back up.
"Did I make a sound?" she asked. Her parents weren’t outside staring, looking up and down the street, as if anyone else out there would really care, ushering her inside and not looking themselves because they could pretend this whole thing didn’t exist if they just didn’t see.
"You were quiet," Jack said, whisky voice low. He still held the plastic bags in his hands and, as she watched, he blinked down in surprise like he hadn’t known. Sandra figured she must’ve been pretty interesting, flopping around like a fish on the ground.
"Can you get up?" the older one asked, still not offering her a hand, but leaning back, giving her room.
Her chest muscles burned something fierce and Sandra winced when she moved, thinking it wasn’t fair to have visions of other people’s lives when she couldn’t even do anything about the one she was living.
Sweat trickled down her spine. She wondered if she’d left scratch marks in the sod again. Her knuckles felt bruised.
"Jesus," Jack said. He pronounced it like Jay-sus and snapped his mouth closed when his brother gave him a look. The gratitude she felt was ridiculously overwhelming; she got the impression that they were used to keeping things close to the vest themselves.
The blue house’s door slammed open and Sandra was too exhausted to flinch. The boys’ father made his way fast across the neighboring lawn and onto hers. The older brother was already on his feet, and both boys stood straight and tall as their father pressed his lips thin at them, face sharp and cutting. He was an inch taller than the eldest, and Sandra felt particularly small down on the ground, not able to move because he was looking at her and demanding, "What happened?" Then he was looking back at the boys, asking, "What do you two think you’re doing?"
Sandra was pretty sure she would’ve gotten defensive if she were them, but they just stood calm. Jack said, "She fell down."
The other said, "We thought she was going to hurt herself."
"Some kind of seizure or something," Jack added, and Sandra felt her cheeks burn red hot.
And then their dad was squatting just like the eldest had, rough-palmed hands warm against Sandra’s jaw, following her when she flinched back and turning her head this way and that, staring hard into her eyes and daring her to look away. She reeled. His hands hadn’t brought on a vision. She hadn’t seen a damn thing from him.
Her throat clicked dry when she swallowed.
"Didn’t hit your head," he said. "This happen often?"
No, she wanted to say. But the word got stuck, raw in her throat, and she shrugged instead, but even that felt like a lie. Fingers dug in a little tighter, like he wouldn’t take that as an answer, but then he just sighed, pulled back and Sandra’s eyes burned as though she’d forgotten to blink. "Come on then," he said, voice a cross between gentle-softness and ruined-rough, a mix of the two boys again. He rose with a crackle of vertebrae, held a hand down low for her.
The oldest brother had picked up his grocery bags, standing with arms stretched low as they watched. Their expressions were unreadable and didn’t tell her a single useful thing.
Sandra let him grab her up, still no vision coming on, but there was a disorientating sway of air, vertigo of heat and sweltering light that wasn’t from the downing sun, a burn in her chest that breathed in tight and held on wrong, and then Sandra looked down at his hand and recognized the row of scars, the twist of silver on his skin along his knuckles, and she dropped his grip so fast it was like she’d been burned all over again.
He frowned at her, and now he was as tense as his sons, something dark and perilous swimming through his eyes. Snare-traps caught up in her skin and gleaming iron teeth sunk deep to the bone.
Sandra thought of fire. She felt it burn and char. She was full of holes and ash and too much blood, on her tongue and on her skin, and, for a moment, she wanted to hit this man, be vicious and angry and hateful because why did this have to happen to her?
And she thought: how many people had died because she hadn’t done a single thing to help them?
It was awful and she kind of just wanted to scream and keep on screaming and turn around and go into the house. But she couldn’t. Sandra couldn’t. Not to them and she didn’t know why.
Sandra swallowed down the gorge in the back of her throat, unclenched her hands, and felt shivers dance across her nerves as she breathed deep and spoke.
"You’re going to die," she said.