If you're impatient to read more about Clay Dillon, click on "Books" above for ordering information for Nothing is Right, the prequel to this story.
Content: Child abuse, physical and verbal. Ableist language. R-word.
Clay paced in his room. He had the space for it, since his LEGO collection was still gone and his mother had just finished cleaning up the piles of broken toys that A.J. liked to leave strewn about like plastic caltrops. He was contemplating the nature of his failure to produce an imaginary friend again.
It seemed like such a simple thing to do, this pretending that there were other people around when there plainly were not. Still, Clay kept failing at it. Not just today, but always.
Today, though, he was not just failing to conjure up his imaginary friend. He was also having to deal with the way that his metal body made pacing difficult, and that was affecting his concentration. Every time he tried to move, the metal body was causing his joints to creak and groan. It hardly helped the situation that he was also creaking in the joints because of way his shoulder had gotten pulled.
That was how he had wound up locked in his room, after all. By falling down. Well, throwing himself down. He only got hurt, though, when he failed to hit the ground.
Clay shook his head.
No matter how many times he told himself what the situation was, he still had a hard time understanding. What kind of person would punish him for trying to help them?
He knew the answer. His father was that kind of person, and it was hardly like today was the first time he had been shown that. He had already seen it when his LEGO collection was taken away, and then again when he had bitten A.J. and both of his parents pretended that he had done it for no reason. What happened today felt different from what had happened before, though. If only because he had been getting along with everyone and done his best, only to wind up in trouble anyway.
Clay stopped pacing and sat in the middle of his room cross-legged. He closed his eyes and let his memories of the day play out against the green and red flares that his darkness always showed him.
His metal body fell away from him and he found himself back inside the scene outside, walking through the yard and picking up bits of discarded shingles that his father and uncle had thrown off the roof while they were working. Every once in a while, his father would point out a spot in the yard where a lot of shingles sat, shouting out to Clay that he needed to pick them up.
His muscles started to ache as the wheelbarrow grew heavier. With each pound of sand and tar that accumulated in its bed, Clay felt another degree of annoyance at his father's micromanagement. What did it matter if he left a certain pile of shingles until his next trip into the back yard? He was going to have to pick them all up by the end of the day. His father and uncle both said so.
When he ignored his father and went about the clean-up on his own, all it did was aggravate the man until he stopped working altogether and stood on the edge of the roof screaming for Clay to stop being “a fucking deaf idiot” and look up.
Clay did look up, if only because he did not want the neighbors to hear how unhappy his disobedience made his father.
“Are you stupid, or do you just think I am?” Mark Dillon asked.
Clay waited for his father to continue. He was sure that this was one of those times when Mark intended for his questions to go unanswered.
“Hey!” Mark shouted. “Don't pretend I'm not here. Look at me when I talk to you.”
Clay stared up at his father. The sun was over Mark's shoulder, but Clay stared without blinking. If his father wanted his attention, he would get it.
“Don't waste your time with all the little chunks. Go around getting the big ones.”
“Don't make faces at me,” his father said. “Speak.”
Clay considered raising both of his middle fingers instead of speaking. It would get him in trouble, but so would saying what he really wanted his father to know.
“I don't have all day, Clay. Use your words.”
That was it. Clay threw the shingles down at his feet.
“Shut up!” the words came out more like a screech than a shout. “Just stop fucking talking. You wanted me to spend all day picking up the yard, fine. It's hot and I feel sick and you wanted the roof done, not me. You're gonna make me pick 'em all up, big and small and everything, so just shut your mouth and let me do it. You got your job and I got mine. Stop fooling with me unless you want me to go play in the sandbox and you can do all this your damn self.”
Mark Dillon did not respond. Instead, he just sat on the edge of the roof and then, as if he was born to do it, he let himself drop to the ground. His hips and knees bounced his body as he landed, and he grunted.
Clay realized that he had made a big mistake.
“If you leave the little pieces, then we can all help you later,” his father said. His voice was very quiet. “If you used your brain, instead of just saving it for your T.V. shows and science fiction novels, you might realize that we're here to help you. No one wants you to break yourself doing this.”
Clay narrowed his eyes at his father. Earlier, when he had felt like his arms were going to fall off, he had asked to be allowed to go inside and read for a while. At the time, he had been told that he was being a wussy and that he could take breaks when everyone else did. Trying to make sense of his father's conflicting behaviors made his head pound even more than the sun and the weight of the wheelbarrow did.
“Do you have something to say to me?” Mark asked.
Clay shook his head. He was not trying to say no, he was just trying to shake the pain out of it.
“You really think cussing me out in front of the neighbors was right? Me, your father? And you, being eight?”
Clay kept shaking his head.
His father grabbed him by the arm and put his other hand on the top of Clay's head, pressing down.
“Stop it!” He hissed. “Stop acting like a retard, and get ahold of yourself!”
Clay tried to tear away from his father, but the grip on his arm was like a shackle. The hand on the top of his head pushed down harder, making Clay feel like he needed to crack his neck and amplifying his existing headache.
“Just stop! Stop being such a baby! You're eight years old, goddamn it, and you know better. What will the neighbors think?”
They'll think you're an asshole and I'm right.
The thought popped into Clay's head a split second after his metal body hardened over his father's grip, taking the pain of it away.
It was as if the words were elemental. They aligned with his emotions perfectly, but he did not feel as if he was the one who created them. He also found himself unable to summon any other words after them, or to make his throat work. The insult faded from his visualization, and he tried to snatch at it, to hold it...
Where the words had been just moments before, there was now just a hole in his vision that corresponded to a raw, empty feeling in his throat.
The scream rushed forth from the hole, and before Clay knew what was happening, it was pushing its way out of his throat, holding his jaws open, and pouring itself all over his father.
He felt a sharp tug in his shoulder socket and realized that his body had gone limp but his father's grip had remained tight. Then there was motion that ended in the darkness of his room.
Someone said: “If you want to throw a tantrum like a baby, then you can take a nap like a baby!” Then the door slammed.
A moment later, the voice said, “Don't let me catch you outside this room until I decide I'm ready to deal with you. If you do, you'll lose those legos forever.” Then Clay cried.
When his words came back to him, he wished that he could call his father stupid without getting grabbed. It was reflixive, now, for him to shrink away from his father whenever the man's voice started to flex its tone, and Clay did not like it. The way that his father used his fingers to hold Clay's attention whenever he felt insufficiently respected always left burning spots after he finally let go, and if Clay complained, then he was told not to be a baby.
If he kept complaining, his father would start to talk at length about his determination never to hit his children because of the things that Grandma Bayleigh used to do to him.
There was no point in talking back, because his father never seemed to absorb words unless they harmonized with the ones that poured incessantly from his own throat.
There was nothing to do but pace.
* * *
Clay opened his eyes, emerging from his recollection of the fight with his father. Revisiting the event again would be pointless, but he also knew it was something he was going to do.
He took a deep breath and then he pulled himself up from the floor. Until his memory came for him again, he could read Ender's Game. That would be good. He had just wanted a break to get to read, and at least he got that. Even if it did mean that he would have at least a lecture and probably some extra chores for “sass.”
Next: People Are Not LEGOs
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