"Skiers" by Dorothy Thompson

I FUCKING hated the fucking Cub Scouts. The goddamned uniforms and the creepy faux Indian bullshit -- and it was all just another monumental waste of my time. Mrs. Simpson liked the idea of me in scouts, and what that goddamned bitch wanted, she got. She was in complete control of my life. Last year had proved that.

This year, she and her husband, Loathsome Tom, were determined that I'd settle down. Cub Scouts was her idea. Thought it would give me some structure, something to eat up energy. Tom's idea was to smack me in the mouth whenever he thought he saw a glimmer of trouble from me.

Tom's idea worked better.

Still, every Thursday night I put on the ridiculous uniform, grabbed my bag, and Mrs. Simpson drove me to St. Lucius', where the Pack met in the basement. It was easier, finally, to just do what they wanted. In a sense, they had broken me. But I hoped it really just meant that I was smarter. I was only nine years old. I had fucking years of this shit to survive.

A shadow fell across my notebook page. I had to stop myself from reaching for a cigarette hanging from my mouth: nine goddamn years and I still had the habit. I suddenly wanted a smoke real bad -- could taste it -- but that was fucking stupid. It was the goddamn cigs what killed me the first time. I made a fist and looked up.

Mr. Spalding was our Cubmaster. He was a tall, gangly old black man who reminded me of Cab Calloway. I had nothing against the man, though his gentle patience was irritating.

"Whatchu writing, Terry?"

God, I hated that name. Nine years, it still wasn't mine. Soon as I could, I was changing it back to Mike.

I didn't bother to close the notebook; it was in code, and Bojangles here wouldn't be able to read it anyway. It wasn't an especially brilliant code, but the people I was hiding my words from -- Mrs. Simpson and Tom, Mr. Spalding -- weren't much of a codebreaking threat.

"Nothing, Mr. Spalding," I said evenly.

He studied me for a moment. I felt bad for Mr. Spalding, sometimes. He was trying to be nice. He just didn't understand. I imagined that under different circumstances, maybe with a bottle of bourbon split between us (for I knew from casual observation that Mr. Spalding liked his bourbon), I might have liked him.

After a moment, he nodded. "Okay. We're about to fall in."

Every meeting began with a quasi-military assembly, with all the scouts in line for review, and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Scout Code. Or law. Or whatever. An oath, maybe. I wasn't a very good scout. I wasn't very good at anything, really, at least nothing that a fucking kid was supposed to be good at. I could roll a tight cigarette and I could tell good whisky from shit, I could walk into any bar in the fucking world and get laid, guaranteedbut none of that counted for shit. If I even tried to apply my skill set, I'd be locked away.

Last year had proved that. It didn't pay to be a problem child.

I let my mind wander while the kids recited, remembering being able to do whatever I wanted, whenever. Within reason of course. I remembered, I was sure of it, I remember Thursday nights spent drinking, smoking, watching baseball. Good nights, even if they'd been killing me.

After fall-in, we broke up into 'Dens' with our Den Mothers to discuss the various Activity Badges we were supposed to be working on. I hadn't earned any, because I was a bad scout, and none of the other kids liked me. That was okay. I didn't like them either.

"Terry, put that notebook away, please, and pay attention."

I glanced up at Amy, who was the mother of one of these uniformed runts. These were people I'd avoided my whole damn life, and I wanted to tell her so, but I forced myself to take a long breath and find my kid voice. It was always hard to find.

"I don't even want to be here," I said finally, trying to pick small words. "My Mom makes me come."

Amy didn't look at me, but kept trying to keep track of all the other attention-deficient runts. "Yes, well, you're here, so you'll just have to pay attention."

I watched her for another few seconds, and then looked back down at my notebook. I'd learned the trick: As long as you didn't misbehave or give them any reason to be extreme, adults didn't know what to do with a kid who just ignored them. Sure enough, Amy ignored me the rest of the night.

In the car later, Mrs. Simpson asked me how the meeting had gone.
"Did you do anything fun? Learn anything new?"
I stared out the window, wished I could drive. Mrs. Simpson drove like an old lady, riding the brake.
"It's a waste of time. I hate it."
She tsked me. "You just need to get used to it. You'll see: You'll love it."
I shut my eyes, and wanted a stiff cocktail.

School was the worst.

The kids were bad enough, but I didn't hold it against them; they were kids. They all hated me, but it was easy enough to avoid them for the most part and intimidate them the rest of the time. In fact most of what I knew about being a kid had to do with fear and tyranny, and in practice it had proven to be easy to terrify the little bastards. They were still unpredictable and though every now and then there was an incident, I had the kids well in hand for the most part.

The adults were harder, but even so I dealt with them. They controlled everything about my life, which was intolerable, but there was no way around it. Last year had proven that to me. I had to do what they told me, or suffer the consequences. I had to wait until I was eighteen again before I could walk away and leave them all behind.

But the adults were manageable, once I got into character. Wide-eyed, snot-nosed, smelling vaguely of something sour. Pretending to be retarded seemed to be the best strategy. The dumber I acted, the more affectionate they were towards me. My secret emergency plan in case things ever got dicey with the adults was to just pass out. I figured I'd wake up with all the ice cream I could eat after that.

The worst part of it was the goddamn waste of time. Hours and hours learning shit I'd already learned or shit I knew I'd never need, it was maddening. I'd tried suggesting I be given a comprehensive examination and graduated if I passed, but this had been rejected out of hand in a bored tone that suggested it hadn't really been considered, and I didn't want to bring it up again. It would just be a battle I would lose. So I showed up every day and crawled over the familiar dusty subjects: infantile history, basic arithmatic, crafts. If I could have read what I wished, or write in my journal, it would have been tolerable, but it was ancient textbooks -- riddled with errors -- and construction paper for me.

Mrs. Andrews made it even worse.

She was no more stupid than the others, or more aggravating. But she was beautiful. She was ripe and round and wore short skirts, with skin like cream and a heavenly smell, the scent of unspoiled woman. She was recently married and was obviously just wasting time until she got knocked up, and I desperately, achingly wanted to be the one who did the knocking up.

It was impossible, of course; even if she'd proven to be a pervert of that sort, I'd so far been completely unable to attain an erection. I waited for puberty, impatient. In the mean time, I watched Mrs. Andrews and constructed elaborate fantasies about her. Even my fantasies ended in frustration.

Two or three times a day, I got permission to go to the bathroom and had a cigarette on the bowl, thinking. I'd resisted smoking for a long time, cognizant of the fact that it had killed me, once that I knew of, that I remembered. But the idea of gutting it out until I was eighteen without tobacco was too daunting. Every resolution aimed at improving, at doing better this time, melted away under the harsh light of being a fucking non-person, a nine-year-old. You just didn't exist as a nine-year-old. And I still wouldn't exist as a ten-year-old. Or an eleven-year-old. When I would suddenly show up on the equipment, popping into existence like a sprite, I wasn't sure. Eighteen seemed unbelievably distant. I needed to smoke. At least smoke, if nothing else.

A lot of times, of course, my thoughts turned to Mrs. Andrews. I'd sit on the toilet and construct my fantasies and suck in smoke and stoke myself into a frenzy, floating back into the classroom on a pleasant cloud of lust and nicotine.

Mrs. Andrews launched into a lesson on American History -- the usual patriotic bullshit, about as accurate as a fucking cartoon. It was amazing how much indoctrination and brain washing was part of being a kid. I didn't remember it that way at all. It was hard to pay attention; the cigarettes hit me so hard, harder than I ever remembered. It was like being stoned, everything coming in waves. I tried to look alert as she paced around the room, pert little ass twitching, giving us her little prepared speech on the Indians, skipping words like genocide or phrases like broken treaty. But I must have looked loopy, because when she twitched her way around my desk she squinted at me and paused, leaning in suddenly and sniffing. She straightened up suddenly.

"Terry, go to the Principal's office. Now."

I glanced up at her, surprised. She wasn't looking at me. It surprised me, but she looked upset, and kept her eyes off me. Still feeling dazed and high, I got up on wobbly legs and staggered out of class. The wet-nosed little wankers watched me in awe; being sent from class to the Principal's office was akin to being on the FBI's Most Wanted list, to them. I swore a couple of the little bastards almost pissed themselves in sympathy.

Mrs. Simpson was speechless, and drove me home from school to start my one day suspension in silence, her hands locked on the steering wheel, my pack of smokes on the dashboard right above the wheel, reflected in the windshield. It was the most pleasant ride I'd ever taken with her.

Loathsome Tom met us at the door, red-faced and speechless too. He glanced at the cigarettes she held out to him and I thought he was going to have a coronary right there on the spot. He looked back at me and then things happened very fast, in a jumble.

He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me towards him, lifting me up off the ground for a moment, my arm engulfed in sudden, terrible pain. Then he was dragging me through the house, panting and cursing, while Mrs. Simpson followed, babbling tearfully and begging him to stop.

I kept my mouth shut.

In the kitchen, he sat down and tossed me over one knee in one smooth motion, as if I weighed nothing. It was terrifying how much bigger and stronger he was, his hands like iron on me.

I stared at the floor and kept my mouth shut. Tom's shoes were caked with mud -- what the hell was he doing all day, anyway?

The spanking didn't bother me. I'd been in fights. Once I'd been beaten so badly down in Athens I was laid up for weeks and almost lost an eye -- I could handle pain. What he was doing was barely penetrating. Like everything else since I'd opened my eyes again, it was just a waste of my time.

My cigarettes had been confiscated, of course, so there was nothing for me to do but lie in the dark in my room and ponder. Getting out wasn't a big deal, of course. There wasn't anything really stopping me from leaving the goddamn house -- Loathsome Tom relied on his intimidation factor to keep me holed up, which was ridiculous, but it left me in peace, and there was a gutter drain with my name on it if I got too bored...

But I was thinking that it might be best to play by the rules a little, let things settle down. The idea of going back for the next ten years made me want to kill myself.

Later that night, Tom came into my room. He paused in uncharacteristic uncertainty in the doorway, not expecting to find me just lying there, calm. I summoned my energies and tried to sound pathetic.

"I'm sorry, Dad."

He sat down on the edge of my bed and was silent for a moment. "Cigarettes are bad, Terry. That's why everyone got so upset. You could really hurt yourself, and thinking of you hurt makes me mad."

Fuck you, I thought. Someday, I'll kill you.

After Tom left, I lay there, stunned, thinking about it: Could I kill them? The idea that maybe I'd overlooked some positive action I could take pulsed through me, pure adrenaline, keeping me hovering an inch above the mattress. Was it possible? I knew kids who'd thought about it. I wondered if some of them had been like me, if maybe every kid who got into our kind of trouble was like me, a secret club.

I tried to think through it calmly, to consider every aspect of it. First off, would it be an improvement? Assuming I could get away with it, of course, assuming I could murder my own parents and not get caught. Would it help? I was nine, and nothing I might think to say would convince anyone to take me seriously. If my legal guardians were gone, what happened next? I'd get new guardians, I guessed -- Aunt Bev or Aunt Nadine, I thought, or maybe become a Ward of the State. None of those were improvements, really; Aunt Bev was religious and Aunt Nadine drank. Plus, my cousins were twats, each and every one.

And being an orphan didn't sound too appetizing either. The thrill started to fade. The idea of just getting rid of them was tempting, but I didn't want to pay the price. Besides, I knew I couldn't do it. I'd done some terrible foul things, but I was no murderer. I knew it. Even if I came up with some ridiculous plot, I would never be able to follow through with it. And even if I were to find some unknown reservoir of strength or desperation, it would like as not result in nothing good.

Lying there with Loathsome Tom's aftershave lingering, I thought that murder was not what I needed. What I needed was money. So I began to plot.

I'd learned a lot from other kids at the Camp, where Loathsome Tom and Mrs. Simpson had sent me, to straighten me out. There were other kids like me, angry, disruptive, terminally unhappy. Maybe they remembered being someone else, too; I hadn't asked. I hadn't made any friends, but lying in the dark on your stale bunk, you talked. What they all mostly talked about was running away, and I'd learned a lot about how not to do it. Running away was easy: You walked down the block, crossed a street your Mother forbid you to cross, and kept walking. It was that easy. The hard part, when you were nine years old, was staying lost and surviving. Society was designed to prevent little kids from moving about the country unsupervised. I intended to move about unsupervised for nine years. It would require planning, but mainly it would require money. One thing I'd learned: Money got things done.

Part one was to just conform for a bit. Mrs. Simpson and Loathsome Tom were both on the edge of doing something drastic with me, and I needed some breathing room. So, briefly, I decided to become the model child, and towards that end I decided to earn my very first merit badge in Cub Scouts, as a peace offering to Mrs. Simpson.

"They're not called 'merit badges'," Mrs. Spalding said carefully. "In Cubs they're Activity Badges." Shut up you fucking cunt, I wanted to say. Who gives a shit? But I swallowed bile. "Okay."

"Which one do you want to start with?"

Mrs. Spalding almost came in her panties when I'd shown up to Cub Scouts in uniform and professing a desire to earn badges forthwith. She was one of those quasi-hot older women who had once been pretty and vivacious, now weighed down by two kids, a minivan, and the belief that her husband would be the last man ever allowed to touch her. As she thumbed through the handbook in search of an Activity Badge she thought wouldn't scare the bejesus out of me, I ran the yellow eye over her.

She was still pretty enough in the face. A round, apple-cheeked face, framed by curly brunette hair. I'd never seen her in anything but T-shirts and crisp, ironed, formless denim trousers that would have looked exactly the same on anyone. But you could tell: put her in a short skirt, some stockings, a little make-up and fuck-me pumps (easy to imagine) and she'd be a passable little whore.

I was nine. Nine years felt like centuries suddenly, studying the curve of Mrs. Spalding's huge tits. I resolved to earn whatever Activity Badge she suggested. It wouldn't mean anything, of course, but fuck if it didn't feel good. I knew this was how terrible, terrible stories began, but I doubted Mrs. Spalding was that interesting.

"How about Scholar?"

I nodded. "Absolutely. Scholar sounds like the ticket."

She squinted at me. "You know, Terry, you are not a typical kid, are you?"

She had no fucking idea. "Ma'am, I surely am. I'm as typical as can be."

"You don't really want to earn a badge, do you?"

"Sure I do."

She shook her head. "Your parents are putting you up to this, huh?"

I blinked. It was the first smart thing I'd heard an adult say in nine goddamn years. I sighed and tried to look woebegone.

"I'm just trying to make Mom happy."

That got her, of course. She actually reached over to tussle my hair. "Okay. We'll take it easy. I'll make a deal with you: Stick with it and I'll make it as easy as I can for you."

She smiled at me. I stared back at that empty, kindly face and fought the urge to smile in turn. I knew that staring me in the face was ten more years of this banal bullshit, Cub Scout meetings and class projects and smiling semi-hot mothers of two who wanted only to tussle my hair.

"You know what?" I said, standing up. "I have to go to the bathroom." I tried to hide the shaking, and to walk steadily, without hitch or hesitation.

How many kids run away from home every year? How many of them were like me? Not kids at all?

The face in the mirror wasn't mine. It wasn't just that it was so young -- it wasn't mine. It was some other body, some other kid. Had I snuffed him out? Buried his life with my own? I didn't care. I suddenly couldn't live his life for one more minute. I looked at the bathroom window: Just big enough to crawl through. I looked back at the face, experimented with different expressions and decided that, yes, I did control it. It wasn't mine, but I sure did run it.

Fuck you, Terry Simpson, I thought, whoever you are. Or were.

Out the window, then, and into the cold night. I was exhilarated and started to run, just because I could, just because the night was wide open and there would be no more play dates, no more bullshit.

At the house, I stopped and sat in the backyard for a while, to catch my breath. I knew Mrs. Simpson and Loathsome Tom would probably be in the Rec Room, watching TV. I pretty much knew their sex schedule and they didn't do anything else. I figured I'd be able to get in and out without being noticed. And if I was noticed, all it meant was that problem child Terry was in trouble again, and maybe back to the camp. No big deal.

Still sweating in my ridiculous uniform, I stood up, shook myself, and launched myself at the trellis on the side of the porch. The little slats were made for my little hands and feet, and in no time I was panting in the back room, the small space packed full of boxes and other dross, the exoskeletons of our family, forgotten.

First, money. I had no way to earn anything; I needed cash. Tom was a cash-hoarder, the fucking moron, and had at least a few grand stashed against -- against what, I didn't know, but I knew it was stashed in a coffee can hidden so cleverly on a shelf in the bedroom.

I crept down the upstairs hall, feeling soggy and breathless, past my squalid, tiny room, into their bedroom, sheets all tangled, various detritus scattered here and there -- in the dark it was all mysterious shadows and familiar smells. For a moment, I was frozen, a sudden, inexplicable dread settling on me, gluing my feet to the floor with terrible force.

Come on, I thought. They are not your parents.

Once I was in motion, everything went quickly. I took the whole can, not even pausing to check its contents. Then I swept back to my room and stuffed whatever clothes I could lay my hands on into my bookbag. As a last inspiration I pulled my short raincoat on over my uniform. Girded against the elements, I made my way down to the spare room and closed the door behind me. For a moment, I stood in the room, in the dark, and felt ridiculous. I was about to step out into the night in my fucking Cub Scout uniform. I was about to become one of those kids, a runaway, a lost cause.

I couldn't stop myself. I grinned. And as I climbed carefully down the trellis, Tom's coffee can digging into my spine, I had to swallow braying, crazy laughter. Because I was free. I was moving into an all new unknown. I was being born.

Jeff Somers, the well-known N.J. zinester responsible for unleashing The Inner Swine on the world for lo these many years has recently taken things up a notch by writing a pageturning, cutting edge science fiction novel, The Electric Church (www.the-electric-church.com). We can also look forward to The Digital Plague, also published by Orbit, from this prolific writer in 2008. Somers is also a presence at the ever-dying star (in danger of becoming a black hole if he ever departs it) of alt.zines, where he periodically charms the natives with his In My Mailbox posts and offers sage zine advice. If you're looking for the chief swine's home this will do: www.innerswine.com.