Saturday, November 8, 2014

Chapter Seventeen: The Kindness Of Strange Children (Imaginary Friends)

Imaginary Friends is a serial novel. New chapters go up every Friday(ish) (professional demands are causing sliding deadlines right now). If you're new to it, you can catch up by starting from the Introduction or the first chapter.

If you're impatient to read more about Clay Dillon, check out the Books page for ordering information for Nothing is Right, the prequel to this story.

Clay Dillon wandered around on the playground, but he did not play. His head hurt too much for that. So did his stomach.

Ever since Noah hit him in the back of the head, he had not felt right. If not for the fact that his mother was obviously doing poorly herself, he might have even wanted to go home. He did not want to go home if his mother was unwell, though.

Not because he wanted to make things easy for her—Clay knew he was always easy for her. She told him so. Whenever A.J. was down for a nap after one of his tantrums, Clay would sit with his mother to wait for the thrumming in his ears to go away. Most of the time, she spent their moments together telling him how much easier he was than his brother.

Clay stayed in school because he did not want to deal with the moods his mother went through whenever she was unwell. It was the easy thing to do. Not just for her, but for him too.

Kitty Dillon usually put her children first, or at least that is what she always told herself, her children, and anyone else who asked. When she did not feel well, though, she had a tendency to pick fights. Clay remembered when her tonsils were taken out.

She had stayed in bed for eight days, refusing to even leave her room when her children were in the house. Her friend Patricia came over every morning to make them breakfast and see them onto the bus, and she brought messages from Kitty out to her children, but she did not let them see their mother. When Clay asked why, he was just told that his mother was tired.

During the entire week, Kitty only permitted her children to see her once, and then it was not both children she wanted to see, it was only Clay. She called for him when he was just home from school, before Patricia came back from whatever activity she used to occupy A.J.'s time during the early afternoon. Clay remembered that day clearly because it was such a rare moment of confrontation and truth between himself and his mother. It had happened in the midst of his worries about trying to get Aaron over to his house for a visit, right in the middle of the previous fall.

At the time, the fact that his mother was sick had not seemed terribly important, especially since she had kept herself far away from him, and she had insisted that he continue with his normal schedule.

Now, as Clay wandered with his pounding head and contemplated his mother's roadside puke, the memory stayed with him.

Clay came home that day to find her bedroom door cracked and the lights off. When he came into the house from outside, he heard her calling for him through that open doorway. Even though it  was light inside, it was from the light of the picture windows that looked out over the sunshine in the front yard, so it was a muted, unreal light. Reflected light.

As he climbed the stairs and walked toward the sound of his mother's voice, he felt the passage from the relatively bright entryway to the dim hallway give way to the dark of his mother's bedroom, where the curtains had been drawn and blankets had been draped over them to block out any but the thinnest slivers of sunlight. Each step he took toward her was not only darker, it was also colder.

His mother kept calling for him as he approached, but Clay did not answer her. He just approached.

It was not until she felt his hand take hers that she seemed to notice he obeyed her call. When that happened, she thanked him for making everything so easy for Patricia and for being so good at school.

Clay wanted to be happy about her compliments, but something about them seemed wrong. It was almost as if she was not complimenting him, but instead apologizing for something. He longed for to have something to say back to his mother, but he could not find words to describe the exact flavor of the reason why he could not accept her compliment. Instead, he squeezed her hand again.

She sat up partway then, reaching for a mixing bowl that was sitting on the nightstand. Clay held it for her. It was smooth, except in the seam where the plastic formed a razor sharp ridge that bit into Clay's hand as he held it out.

Kitty Dillon did not take the mixing bowl from her son. Instead, she reached over her own shoulder and pulled her hair into a ponytail. Then she opened her mouth and spewed several great hacking coughs. Llarge, green chunks of phlegm streaked with crooked roots of blood shot out of her mouth and into the bowl, where they attached themselves to a crush that looked like it was made of a previous episode of the same discharge from earlier in the day.

Clay stared at the pieces of his mother that she had spat out.

"That's what stress looks like," Kitty said to him. "If you ever wonder what it is, when Grandpa Harry talks about how stress is killing him, that's it. Those chunks. They come out of you whenever something bad happens, like when you get cut open and your father tells you that you're not back on your feet fast enough for his liking. The words get stuck in your ears and they make your own words stick in your throat until they rot. Then you get sick until you get them out."

Clay nodded. He was fairly sure that his mother was not telling the truth, but he was also fairly sure that she was. He knew how his father could get.

"Don't just nod!" Kitty rasped at him. "Do you understand what I am telling you?"

Clay tried to answer her, but his feelings about her sickness and her words were too complicated. He nodded instead. He hoped she understood why.

"You're just another clown. A bobbling head on a stick. You don't understand anything," she said. "You can go downstairs to wait for Patricia now."

Clay had obeyed his mother when she sent him away, but he had never really felt easy about it. Part of him had kept wondering what he had done to deserve the dismissal. When no one mentioned the event though, he decided not to ask about it. And when his mother appeared in the kitchen the next morning and croaked out an announcement about wanting to make her children pancakes, he assumed that whatever it was had passed.

Now, though, the thought returned to him. The inside of his head felt like it had been mashed until it reached the consistency of his mother's chunky stress phlegm, and everyone was acting like today was just a normal day. It was like they all decided to forget the violence that had been perpetrated on him just an hour before.

Other children swarmed around him on the playground in packs that failed to acknowledge the random outsiders that struggled to pass through their midst. Clay struggled to cope with their ignorance of his confusion, but attempting to look like he was also playing made him want to lash out violently.

He looked around for some kind of help or relief.

Where was Aaron? He had said something about needing peace and quiet, and then he had disappeared completely.

Clay searched for his friend, but the playground seemed oddly unfamiliar. He walked by the same slide twice without recognizing it (either time) until he was right underneath the thing. When he did realize where he was, he became embarrassed.

Eventually, it occurred to him that he understood his mother's message now, and that he really had not understood before. She had been right to be disappointed in him.

He sat down under the slide and cried.

Clay did not cry alone for long. While Aaron did not magically appear to bring friendship and support, other children eventually found him, and some of them found him interesting.

The first group that stumbled across Clay was a trio of boys from Mrs. Hudson’s class, led by a new kid named Sully. Clay did not know Sully well, but he knew that the boy was one of the group of boys whose entire worlds seemed to revolve around their fathers' sports fandoms. To Clay, this did not necessarily make him bad, but it did make him completely indecipherable.

When Sully and his friends came up to Clay, he stood up.

"You okay?" Sully asked Clay. "It looked like Noah hit you hard."

"I guess," Clay said. "They didn't send me home, but I have a headache."

“I guess that makes you pretty tough,” Sully said. “But if you’re so tough, why did you pretend Noah hit you for no reason? Why didn’t you tell Mrs. Hudson what you did?”

“He kept kicking me,” Clay said. “I only wanted him to stop.”

Clay was suddenly aware that Sully’s two friends were on either side of him.

“You twisted his foot really hard,” Sully said.

Then one of Sully’s friends pushed Clay, hard, into the other one.

“Hey!” The third kid yelled. “Don’t hit me!”


He never finished his objection. The two nameless boys kept yelling at him to stop being clumsy as they shoved him back and forth between them.

Clay’s headache intensified. He had to hold his gorge down by force of will.

Sully laughed.

“That’s enough!”

The new voice was firm, but so tiny that it almost had to be shrill. At the same time, though, it was brassy with authority.

Clay could tell it was a girl’s voice, but it was also a bugle’s voice. He tried to look around for the bugle-girl, but the playground kept spinning. The other children stopped shoving him, though.

“Good,” the bugle-girl said. “Now go find something else to do.”

No one moved. Bugle-girl shrieked.

“What’s going on over there? Is someone hurt?” Mr. Hanson’s voice carried from somewhere nearby, but not too nearby.

Sully and his friends vanished.

“Everything is fine!” Bugle-girl called out. “Clay almost fell down and it startled me!”

A second later, Clay became aware that Mr. Hanson was standing a few feet from him.

“Are you sure you don’t want to call home, Clay? You’re kind of walking lopsided,” he said.

“No,” Clay said. “I just got dizzy from spinning around too much.”

“You sure?” Mr. Hanson’s voice grew a little harder. “There’s nothing wrong? You haven’t been sick this whole afternoon, have you?”

Suddenly, Clay felt exposed. How did Mr. Hanson know? What would he do? It worried him to be caught like this, in a lie. He knew what he should tell Mr. Hanson how he felt, but at the same time, he was pretty sure that if he told the truth then he would just wind up in trouble at home.

That tended to be how things worked, in Clay’s experience. From the roofing day fight with his father to biting A.J. back, other people would torture him, hurt him, or work him until he felt very tired. Then, when he finally collapsed or lost control over his own frustration, he had to be punished for his attempt to protect himself.

Mr. Hanson watched him expectantly.

Clay told himself to keep his emotions under control. He reminded himself about how angry his father had been last year when Mr. Foster made him leave work to come to a conference. Mark had not blamed his son for the incident, but his anger was still palpable, and once they were home, he and Kitty had taken their tempers out on each other.

Clay had heard them through the air ducts. The house they lived in was full of ways to listen to other rooms. He knew all the times they blamed him for his own hurt.

Finally, he made himself look Mr. Hanson in the face.

“I am fine,” he said. “I was playing around and I got dizzy and almost fell into her.”

Mr. Hanson looked at bugle-girl and raised an eyebrow.

“It’s okay,” she said.

Then he nodded and wandered off. When Mr. Hanson was out of earshot, bugle-girl turned to Clay.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hello,” Clay replied. “Who are you?”

“I’m Hillary,” the girl said.

Then she made a little curtsy.

Her floral dress did not bend with her body. It was pretty, but the fabric was thick and stiff. Along the collar, rigid lace held the shape of her even as her body itself moved.

“Your mom makes your clothes,” Clay said. “My mom made some of my clothes once. They didn’t last very long. She makes a lot of her own clothes, though, and she’s good at it.”

“My mom too,” Hillary said.

“Thank you,” Clay said.

“I’m in Mrs. Hudson’s class too,” Hillary said. “I sit kind of behind Noah. I saw what he did to you. He’s a creep.”

“How do you know him? I don’t remember you from Mrs. Nesbitt’s class.”

Hillary shrugged. “I wasn’t in Mrs. Nesbitt’s class last year. I was in Mrs. Conrad’s.”

She spun around a little bit.

Clay closed his eyes so that her motion would not make him feel ill. It was too late, though. He got dizzy, and then he fell down with his eyes closed.

When his knees hit the ground, he grimaced at the sensation of them sinking in and the earth settling around them.

“Oops,” Hillary said. “You got a little muddy.”

Clay wanted to scream. He did not feel the scream welling up inside himself, which was a relief, but he still wanted to create it and turn it loose anyway. He knew that courting the scream was dangerous, though, so he tried to make his metal body harden around himself.

Nothing happened.

Well, not nothing. His dizziness got worse, and only Hillary reaching out and holding him by the shoulders kept him from falling onto his face and turning his dirty knees into a full-on mud suit like Patrick had done.

“Let’s show Mr. Hanson,” she said. “He can let us in to clean up.”

Clay nodded, remembering how Mr. Hanson had proven to be helpful at the lunchtime recess. He let Hillary help him up, and the two went to see the playground aide together.

Mr. Hanson made a weird face at Clay when he saw the boy was muddied up again.

“You’re sure you’re not dizzy and falling down because of the way that kid cold-cocked you?” He asked. “Because, I gotta be honest, when I see a kid who keeps falling down and getting hurt, I get worried.”

“I’m worried too,” Clay said. “I don’t want my pants to get stained.”

“Fair enough,” Mr. Hanson said. Then he unlocked the door to the first grade wing and opened it.

Clay and Hillary walked inside.

“Hold on there,” Mr. Hanson said. “Clay can go alone.”

“You let Aaron come in with me at lunch,” he said. “I need help.”

“That’s fine,” Mr. Hanson said, “but I can’t let Hillary go into the boy’s bathroom with you. If you two get caught playing kissy-face in the kids’ toilets, I’ll get in trouble. I can send in Sully or Darrel to help you if you want.”

Clay shook his head vigorously.

“I’m sorry,” Hillary said. Then she walked back outside.

The door closed behind her, and Clay was alone, with mud up to his knees, in the dim light that filled the first grade wing from the overhead windows. He walked to the bathroom he had used so often the previous year, the one that had been his safe haven when he needed to clean blood off his legs or to hide from his scream. He tried to clean himself up there, but the mud was stickier and harder to wipe away in the late afternoon than it had been earlier. When he left to go back to class, there were still half-dried clods falling off him.

Mrs. Hudson sniffed derisively the first time one of them hit the floor of her room. Clay felt too hollow and too tired to make any sense of the changes in her mood, so he put his head down on his desk and listened to the rest of the class. Luckily, there was only an hour between the final recess and the end of the day.

Next: New Routines

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