Marc’s Backstory from “Strength” – WARNING tough sledding ahead…

Yeah, don’t read if you don’t wanna cry. I know, fuckin’ everyone says that, every writer bursts into tears when they finish their grocery lists. Seriously though. It’s heavy.

 

There is no doubt that for a young person of quick mind, there are few punishments more terrible than spending one’s days in the classrooms of a mediocre public high school.

And yet, here was Marc Julian, who should have been in a “gifted students” academy, enduring his senior year at Coppersmith High. A prisoner on Devil’s Island could hardly feel more despair at his state than a brilliant, hormonal teenager forced to endure the learning pace of the dolts around him.

The problem was political, really. Marc’s parents were academics who were, unfortunately for Marc, firm believers in their duty to “stay put” in the public school system. They had vowed to work to improve it, rather than abandoning it for a private or charter school.

They were also trying to teach Marc an “important lesson” about compassion, helping others less fortunate, et cetera ho hum. It would be many years before that lesson sunk in, and it would not be at the hands of the lackwits here, frowning over the math problems in their textbooks. Those textbooks Marc had already read cover to cover, doing a year’s homework in advance, so that he need only turn it in, piece by piece.

There was an “academically talented” program, of course – his parents were crazy but not stupid. And Marc could spend his afternoons at the university, getting a head start on college coursework. It was blazingly obvious to Marc that he should already be in college full time, but his parents also wanted their brilliant boy live as “normal” a childhood as possible.

Marc could give a fuck about a normal childhood. When you’re that smart, childhood is just an unfortunate biological state that prevents your escape from the company of other children. The year they’d let him skip 8th grade and go straight to high school had been the happiest of his life, as he’d at least felt challenged for a few weeks.

On the first day of his senior year, having survived a tedious morning of English, United States Government, and Biology, he was in his last class of the day, Speech and Debate. This had always been the most interesting class, since, sometimes, somebody would say something he hadn’t already heard a thousand times before.

Each year, there was a new topic, and this year’s topic was “Will Automation Take Our Jobs?”

“So,” Mrs. Grandison said, “before we start researching this topic, I’d like to see what you know about it now, what you think about it now. Take a moment to write down your thoughts. We’re doing this so that, at the end of the year, you can look back at what you’ve learned and how it may have changed your opinion.”

Mrs. Grandison was competent, in Marc’s eyes, which was why he’d signed up for the class year after year. When called on, he quickly noted his own thoughts, that automation had always appeared to threaten to destroy jobs, but had instead created new jobs in new industries.

The students each read their thoughts aloud, and Marc heard little that was new or of interest. Until Mrs. G checked her list and called on a new student.

“Lark, what are your thoughts?”

Marc turned to see a wisp of a boy stand up at the back of the class. He was painfully thin, his button-down shirt hanging off his bony shoulders. He had thick “Coke bottle” glasses in those horrible silver aviator frames that only mechanical engineers still wore. His blond hair was thin, wispy, a sure sign of baldness before thirty. He cleared his throat, and spoke without notes.

His voice was clear, bright, sharp, radiating intelligence and wit. “The question as it’s posed fails to address the most pressing issue. Not that there will be a shortage of jobs, but that there will be a surplus of people. In less technologically developed times, it was necessary to have as many children as possible, both because of child mortality, and the endless amount of work required for a family to maintain a decent standard of living. Now, technology has freed us from the need to reproduce at such frantic rates, and yet, we still reward the parents of octoplets with television appearances and motor homes and free diapers for life, as if they’ve accomplished something by adding to the planet’s burdens.”

The hairs on the back of Marc’s neck rose. He was absolutely certain that, at last, he’d finally found someone as smart as he was.

“A technology that reduces the number of jobs, allows us to have less children. To finally stop overburdening the world with more polluters, more consumers. The advances in technology that require less people to run the world, free us to create less people to occupy it.”

Lark sat down, and Mrs. Grandison paused. “Well, that’s…an interesting idea. Thank you, Lark.”

After class, Marc nearly grabbed Lark. He was in the grip of that other demon that lives in the smart and isolated adolescent: the burning urge to finally connect with someone else just as smart and strange as he was.

“Hey,” Marc said in the hallway. “Lark.”

Lark froze when Marc called his name, as if expecting the worst. Slowly, cautiously, he turned back towards Marc. The relief on his face was palpable.

“Hey.”

“You’re totally right. There are too many fucking people in the world.”

“He should know,” a girl in their class said as she breezed by. “He’s got twelve brothers and sisters.”

Lark blushed. “Well,” he said, recovering. “I plan on doing my part. No arrows from this quiver.”

“Fuck her,” Marc said, glowering after the girl. “She’s one of those future lawyer types, always going for the jugular.”

They stood there, looking at each other, both of them too self-conscious, too mature to say anything as teenage as “So, do you wanna hang out?”

“Do you code?” Marc asked instead.

Finally, Lark smiled, a slow gentle turn of his lips. God, he is a little bird, Marc thought.

“I bet I can code circles around you.”

Marc grinned. “I regret to inform you of your error. Come on. Let’s go to my house and we’ll see what you got.”

 

The two boys sat in front of Marc’s MacBook Pro, as Marc proudly displayed his latest project.

“It’s a dating site for book nerds. I call it ‘Reeddate.’ Get it? Like speed date? People sign up, and post whatever book they’re about to read. Then they get matched with people in their city who are about to read the same book, and they pick one from the profile to match with. They set a date that they’ll both finish reading the book, so they’re motivated to do it, then they meet for coffee or whatever and discuss it.”

“Just one on one? Not a book club thing?”

“Yeah. If they like each other, they can go, you know, date or whatever. But it’s perfect for people…”

“Like us,” Lark said, that small smile appearing again, just a wrinkle on one side of his face.

“Right. Who are totally retarded when we have to make small talk. ‘Where are you from, what do you do, do you like ponies?’”

“You shouldn’t bother with a web site,” Lark said. “Do you have an iPhone?”

“Yeah,” Marc said. It was the fall of 2008 and the phone had only been available for a year, but had already changed the world. Marc had paid for his own ridiculously expensive phone by doing some dreary boring coding, for an accounting firm in town.

“Get the SDK, and turn this into an iPhone app.” It was more of a command than a suggestion. “Phone apps are the wave of the future, not web sites.”

Marc looked at him. He wasn’t used to being ordered about, especially on technical subjects. “How can you be so sure?” he asked testily.

Lark shrugged. “Look at all the kids with iPhones already. They cost about as much as a gold bar, and yet, everybody’s got to have one. And we’re not even in some pricy school. Haven’t you noticed the change? The kids who used to hang out at the coffee shop on their laptops, they’re only on them now for stuff they can’t do on the phone, like homework. Facebook’s on the iPhone now, you know.”

Marc stared blankly at the screen, encountering for the first time the feeling every creative person gets at one time or another in their lives: the knowledge that you’ve been going down the wrong path, that all your brilliant work is, yes, brilliant, but also suddenly useless.

“Shit. Shit shit shit,” Marc said, shaking his head.

“Hey, look, I can help you. I’ve already got an app in the App Store, I know how to do this.”

Marc looked up at him. “You? Already? I mean, no offense, but that’s a pretty big accomplishment for a teenager.”

Lark’s smile this time was as real as it got, his own brilliant wicked clever self on full beam as he grinned at Marc. “Yeah it is. You ready to beat me at my own game?”

“Fuck yeah,” Marc grinned. “Let’s go, beeotch!”

 

There were days that fall when Lark would wear long sleeve shirts, even on brutally hot Indian Summer days. And because they sat next to each other, working on the app, Marc could see what they concealed – a bruising at the wrist, the unmistakable imprint of an iron grip. Or Lark would yawn and stretch, and his untucked shirt would rise up, and Marc could see a purple-black spot the size of a saucer.

“Who’s beating you up?” he asked bluntly one day.

Lark froze. “It’s nothing.” To Marc’s shock, he turned into someone else then, back into the little bird he’d seen in the hallway when Marc had first called after him.

“Is it your parents?”

Lark laughed bitterly. “No. They prefer the Harry Potter method. Locking me in the closet under the stairs, with a Bible and ten chapters to memorize. Usually about vanity and obedience and whatnot.”

“They’re that religious?”

Lark raised an eyebrow. “Most people in this country are, you know.”

Marc sighed. “It’s a tragic set of circumstances, isn’t it?”

Lark only shrugged.

“But they let you have a computer.”

There it was again, that one line in his cheek as the corner of his mouth turned. “They do. All of us work to support the family, and the money I make on apps, well… Let’s just say I render unto Caesar.”

“They take your income?”

“Most of it. ‘Our’ income. Thirteen kids eat a lot of food.”

“Why aren’t you in…holy roller school? Or home schooled, or whatever?”

“So my parents can go to PTA meetings and school board meetings and fulminate against secular humanist education, and have a leg to stand on, because their own kids are in this terrible system.”

“So it’s someone at school, then, hitting you.” Lark said nothing, so Marc went on. “Why don’t you fight back?”

Lark waved his skinny arms in the air. “With what?”

Marc tapped his head. “This. Hack into the school system, it’s about as hard as climbing through an open window. Change his grades, ruin his life.”

Lark smiles wanly. “What would you think of me if I told you that…that for all that I think my parents are full of crap with their right wing craziness, that I’m still a Christian? That I believe in turning the other cheek?”

Marc would have been less astonished if Lark had claimed to be a space alien, come to Earth to study its people prior to their conquest.

“I’d say you’re mentally ill.”

“Does that mean we can’t be friends?”

Marc laughed. “No. To be honest, I don’t know if I could get along with someone who’s not mentally ill.”

Lark relaxed. “Nor do I.”

“But,” Marc waved a warning finger. “No Jesus shit, don’t try and convert me.”

Lark assumed the pose of a Bible-thumper, intoning in a startlingly deep voice. “‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.’”

“Yeah, you can go therefore, buddy.”

Lark laughed. “Okay. Let’s get back to work.”

 

One day, Marc looked up Lark’s app in the App Store. He’d seen Lark’s card, and the name of his company – Thes310 Inc.

None of it made sense. Lark’s app was a calculator app, and a calculator was built into the iPhone system, and yet there it was, 99 cents and selling like hotcakes.

He couldn’t make sense of the company name, either. And it wasn’t in Marc’s makeup to just ask, not when it was the kind of thing he should be able to figure out for himself.

It wasn’t “The 310,” or “These 310.” If it was leetspeak, the numbers standing in for letters, then it could be “TheseIO,” he thought, where IO was input/output, a basic computer term.

He’d been doodling options on a piece of paper in the living room when his father joined him on the couch. Hadrian Julian, professor of Roman history, was not a prying man when it came to his children’s lives, but he couldn’t resist a puzzle.

“What’s that?”

“It’s the name of Lark’s software company. I’m trying to figure out what it means.”

Neither would it occur to Professor Julian to “just ask,” as he too loved a puzzle.

He looked at his son’s list of potential answers. “Leetspeak?”

“Type 58008 on your calculator, turn it upside down, it spells boobs.”

“I don’t quite see that as Lark’s style.”

“No… But I’m stumped.”

Marc looked at his father and saw it – that delighted, astonished look he got when he understood something. “I have it. Captain John Smith is your key.”

His father walked away, whistling with contentment.

Marc sighed. “Typical,” he murmured.

Back on his computer, he Googled Smith, and read the history of one of the founding fathers of the colony of Jamestown. Something stood out in the article: “Quickly elected president of the settlement, Smith instituted his famous ‘if ye shall not worke, ye shall not eate’ edict.”

That sounded about right for Lark’s family. But what did that have to do with the company name? He Googled “if you don’t work, you don’t eat,” the modern equivalent.

And there it was. Of course. “Thes310” was 2 Thessalonians 3:10 – 12.

“For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”

Marc laughed. Then frowned. He was completely ignorant of the Bible, and he never, ever would have broken the code without his father’s help. Hadrian was just as much an atheist as his son, but he clearly had the knowledge to put it together.

Marc hated not knowing things. He had a fantastic, almost “photographic” memory, and he grimly resolved to read the damn book – if only so nobody could catch him out like that again.

 

“So what’s the deal with your calculator app?” Marc asked him one day. “It’s selling, and it’s not necessary.”

Lark gave him a mysterious smile. “Do you know much about cryptography?”

“Not really. Why?”

“Well, it’s a…hobby of mine. I guess it started when I was in Bible Study class one Sunday, and I had a teacher who was really into ‘Bible code,’ this idea that secret messages were encrypted in the Bible.”

“By its authors?”

“Well, by Yahweh. They think the original Hebrew text has hidden messages from God, that can be mathematically discovered. There’s software that does Equidistant Letter Sequencing, for instance, that finds every fifth letter in the Bible, or every sixth, or every hundredth, until finally you come up with a coherent sentence, and that’s the prophecy or message or whatever.”

Seeing Marc’s astonished disbelief, Lark laughed. “I know, a million monkeys with a million typewriters will eventually write a Shakespeare play. Anyway, yeah, it’s bullcrap, but it got me interested in cryptography, secret messages, et cetera.”

“And what’s all that got to do with a calculator app?”

Lark grabbed Marc’s phone off the desk. “It’s easier if I show you.” He downloaded the app from the App Store, installed it and handed the phone back to Marc.

The screen said only, “Create your four digit PIN,” with a text box. Marc tapped in a random number, 7402, knowing he’d remember it perfectly.

The calculator popped up. “Now what?”

Lark grinned. “Calculate 6 x 3 + 3.”

The screen turned into a “please wait” message with a progress bar. After about thirty seconds, Marc was looking at a chat app. “It’s a shell. The calculator’s a shell for…this.”

Lark nodded. “Create a username.”

Marc chose “Apostate” as a screen name.

Lark laughed. “Right, Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome. Nice.”

Lark tapped on his own phone, and a message popped up on Marc’s, a friend request. Marc accepted.

Lark took a picture of himself with the phone, sticking his tongue out, and sent it. A  minute later, a flag popped up on Marc’s screen, a little camera icon. He clicked it, and there was Lark’s picture.

“Oh my God, this is brilliant. But, why didn’t you just do a chat app?”

“Because parents can find and delete chat apps. Parents don’t delete calculator apps.”

“But the App Store, they have to review the code, right? They…”

Lark waved him away. “It’s a calculator when you download it. The rest of the app…well, trade secret,” he grinned.

 

One day Marc found Lark in the hallway, a hulk of a boy towering over him. Lark always seemed fragile, a sapling just waiting for a stiff breeze to knock it over. He looked that way now more than ever, his face blank.

“You ever tell anyone about this, I’ll kill you,” the bigger boy growled in his deep voice.

“Hey,” Marc said, breaking the tension between the two boys. Drake turned around.

Marc swallowed when he saw who it was. Drake Walton, the high school’s superstar quarterback, was already six foot three and growing, blond, tan, with perfect skin, and glitteringly clear blue eyes…but…

If you saw those eyes from an angle, they were beautiful, like gems. But if you saw them head on, that stare locking on yours, there was no…surface. It was hard to put into words. But they were like clear blue water, only you could float in water, but these pools would not hold you up. You’d sink and there would be no lifeguard, nobody to give a shit if you drowned there. He’d blink, and it would be as if you’d never existed.

He was the sort of athlete who’d become a star in college, his immense talent blinding the alumni, the coaches, the fans…and whatever university he landed in would protect him from sexual assault charges and drunk driving “incidents,” campus and local police turning a willfully blind eye. But he’d fail in the pros, when men who’d seen all manner of bad characters took one look in those eyes and knew him, knew the trouble to come.

Marc knew trouble when he saw it. And it made his groin throb, the danger, the excitement of an attraction to someone so…bad. And when Drake gave him his million dollar smile, the smile that made people forget what was in his eyes, Marc smiled back, wanly, tentatively. Then Drake smirked, having seen what he thought he’d see. He brushed past Marc as he left, and the heat of him, Marc could feel his young healthy body glowing with it.

“What was that all about?” he asked Lark.

“Nothing. He’s my cousin. Family stuff.”

“Liar,” Marc said. “He’s the one who’s responsible for those bruises, isn’t he?”

“Like I said, it’s family stuff. Let it go.”

Marc couldn’t read Lark, but it still sounded like a lie. But he let it go.

 

Marc only went to Lark’s house once. That was enough, for both boys. It had only happened because Lark had forgotten a book they needed at home.

Marc had never been in a poor person’s house. His house had always been clean, orderly, quiet. Lark’s house was like a day care center on the cleaning lady’s sick day. There was crap everywhere, drooly pacifiers on the floor beneath a baby crying and banging its hands on the table of its…baby seat thing, Marc thought.

There were nauseatingly bright and broken toys all over the green shag rug. The couch had a flower print that looked more like a trampled garden now, there was so much grime embedded in the upholstery. A giant tube TV ruled the room from its throne atop a high-tech glass and chrome stand, the only shiny modern thing in the room.

The living room felt hollow for a reason Marc couldn’t put his finger on at first. Then he realized that there were no book cases. No art on the walls, other than a print of a blond Jesus.

Lark’s mother came out to silence the screaming baby. “Lark, go make sandwiches for the kids.”

“We just came by to…”

“Lark! Do as you’re told!”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said meekly.

“Who’s this?” she asked, looking dubiously at Marc.

Marc looked back. Ruth had found a hairstyle she really liked back in 1988, and hadn’t changed it since. She was seriously overweight, each of her thirteen children having added more to her bulk. You’d think that would soften her features, but you’d be wrong. She regarded Marc as if he was the Devil’s door-to-door salesman, come to sell sin to her son.

“This is my friend Marc, we’re working on a…”

“Are you a Christian man?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Marc said with his most dazzling smile. He could feel Lark next to him, immobile with terror.

“What does the Bible say about obeying your parents? Besides the Commandment,” she added, her eyes narrowing at him.

“Ephesians 6:1 springs to mind, ma’am,” Marc said thoughtfully. “‘Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.’”

She nodded. “Go on, then.”

Marc followed him into the kitchen, which was a jumble of dirty dishes and baby food jars. All he could feel at the time was disgust; only years later would he look back and think what a Sisyphean task it must be to maintain any semblance of order with that many kids.

“How did you know that?” Lark whispered to him as they made white bread sandwiches with generic peanut butter and store brand jam.

“After you tricked me with that Thessalonians quote, I decided I needed to read the Bible. So I did.”

“And you just…remembered it?”

“Don’t look so astonished. I could memorize the phone book if I wanted to. Might have been more interesting,” he added, needling his Christian friend. “Also, that quote is pretty much the same in every English translation, so I couldn’t offend her by picking, you know, the Catholic version or whatever.”

Lark shook his head disbelievingly. “That’s amazing.”

“‘But though He had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on Him.’”

Lark laughed, out loud, for the first time in Marc’s presence. “Blasphemer.”

“Get used to it,” Marc grinned.

 

Marc’s sexuality had come up in casual conversation one day, and Marc had steeled himself for rejection, for Lark’s disappearance from his life.

“So I guess you’ll be going now,” Marc finished abruptly.

“Why?”

“I’m gay, and you’re Christian.”

“So?”

“Don’t you watch the news? It’s pretty plain to me from every news story that all Christians hate fags.”

“That’s not true,” Lark said.

“Well, if they don’t, why aren’t they as noisy as the ones who do? Why are they content to just…fold their hands and let the haters rave on in their name?”

Lark’s face grew thoughtful. “You don’t fight hate with hate.”

“Turn the other cheek, then the other, is that it?” Marc said scornfully.

“No. You fight hate with justice. You can’t stop hate, you can only…prevent it from gaining power. From ruining the lives the haters want to ruin.”

“By doing what, pray tell? Pun intended.”

“Just that. Praying. Setting an example. Quietly. Accepting gay people, voting against hate-filled ballot measures.”

“Right. Hold hands and sing, that’s fixed a lot of terrible things.”

“Actually, it has.”

Marc thought about Lark’s abuse at Drake’s hands, the bruises that he’d received from not fighting back. And decided that holding hands and singing was the biggest bunch of bullshit he’d ever heard.

“Anyway,” Marc said, changing the subject.

 

Once he was in the chat app’s database, Marc started getting friend requests from other kids. The app had some kind of locator system, probably based on the phone number’s area code. Facebook was only beginning to spread its tentacles across the world, and people were just learning the addictive power of “adding friends,” as if you really were getting the jolt of oxytocin that comes from a new, real friend, just by pushing a button.

Marc was immunized against this addiction, since he didn’t like most people, and was especially loathe to pretend to be “friends” with people he barely knew.

The funny part was when he got pix from girls showing him their tits. Like that was ever going to happen! Obviously they didn’t know who he was; his screen name was discreet enough.

But when he got a friend request from Drake Walton, quarterback, golden boy, and yes, bully…well, Marc was a teenager, and gay, and something not in his brain stirred when he saw the invite.

He accepted without thinking about it, his breath quickening. Drake had chosen 1stRoundPick as his “anonymous” screen name, and even for someone as unsportsmanlike as Marc, he got the egotistical reference and knew who it was right away.

Drake was tall, handsome, and charming, like most successful sociopaths. And he’d never given Marc the time of day. It would be years before Marc would have a “bipolar” diagnosis, but mania definitely kicked in the day that Drake acknowledged his existence, even if only digitally. The thing that was desired but improbable, became not only probable but inevitable, through the sheer force of belief.

Marc suddenly had fantasies of himself and Drake, sharing their secret love. Drake, fulfilling every teenage Heathcliff dream, Drake the handsome tortured god, whom only you can fix. Drake, the boy whose secret hurt had made him so very bad, the hurt that only you can heal.

And yet…some part of Marc was too smart to test the hypothesis in real life. Too smart to actually approach Drake in the hallway, to even meet his eyes, in case the blank stare he got in return invalidated every perfect future together that he’d crafted with such artisanal care.

Until one day Marc got a picture from Drake. A picture from the waist down, naked, Drake’s penis the size of something from an ancient fertility statue.

He thought that he’d die. It was real! All of it! Drake’s secret desire for Marc was as powerful as Marc’s for Drake! And that dick, omigod…

Something flashed in his mind, a dark cloud, a knowledge that this was wrong… Drake was a bully, Drake had hurt Lark. Drake wouldn’t treat Marc well…and yet, something in Marc got excited at that thought. It would be the first, but not the last time he desired a man who was oh so bad for him.

Lark noticed that afternoon, the difference in him, the nervous excitement.

“You aren’t commenting your code,” he noted. “You okay?”

“No. Can you keep a secret?”

Lark smirked. “I run a secret chat service. And I’m seriously into crypto. I think I can keep a secret.”

Marc showed Lark the photo. “What do I do? I mean, I really like him. I mean, he’s really hot. I know he’s an asshole, but… What’s wrong?”

Lark shook his head. “Drake. Jesus. I should have known.”

“What, you know him?”

“He’s my cousin. And he’s definitely straight. He…sorry, Marc, but I’m sure he sent you this by mistake. And he shouldn’t be doing that, he said he’d…”

Marc was too busy feeling it, his own crash, as the one solid support beam holding up his entire castle in the air, disappeared from beneath it. Too busy to see the look on Lark’s face, the shock, the cascade of emotion, of speculation.

Lark tapped on his phone. “Let me go into admin mode and see what…” He stopped talking as he scrolled through the records, the pictures, that the kids had sent…

“Oh God forgive me,” he whispered.

“What?”

“I didn’t…I never thought…”

Marc blinked. “You poor innocent. You never thought kids would use it to send naked pix to each other? I thought that was part of the joke.”

“What joke?”

“The Bible quote. You know, ‘not busy at work, but busybodies’? Bodies gettin’ busy?”

Lark’s face turned ashen. “Oh my God. That’s why he…” He stopped.

“He? Who?”

Lark stood up. “I have to go. I have to…”

Marc grabbed his arm, then saw Lark flinch at his touch. “Sorry,” he said, letting go. “But you have to tell me. What’s going on? What are you so scared of?”

Lark sat down. “Drake. It all started with Drake.”

 

Lark laid it out for Marc. Drake was Lark’s cousin, and had discovered his work on the secret texting app. It was Drake who’d bullied Lark into adding the photo sharing option. Drake, who’d been responsible for the bruises on Lark’s body. Drake, who’d told him he’d better keep his mouth shut.

“Why didn’t you tell anyone he was beating you up?”

Lark looked at him disbelievingly. “Because I’d have to tell them why. I thought…I thought he was just going to be hitting on cheerleaders and…”

He started to cry. “Oh sweet Jesus I’m going to Hell.”

Marc was astonished. Lark had always worn his religion lightly, like a mantle. Now it was a heavy, terrible thing, crushing him.

“Why? Is it really such a terrible shock to you that teenagers are having sex?”

Lark held out his phone. “If you can stand it. If you can stand to see what I’ve done.”

Marc took the phone. Flipped through the photos that Drake had taken, and sent.

“Oh my God.”

Lark nodded. “That’s why I’m going to Hell.”

Marc handed the phone back to Lark, physically ill. “We have to…no, we can’t. You’ll get in so much trouble. We have to…”

“No. I’m going to reveal it all.” With a few swipes he deleted Marc’s account, his history, any references to him in anyone else’s history. “You’re out of it now. You never existed in there.”

“It’s not your fault. You didn’t know what he’d do with it. And now you’ve discovered it, now you can defend yourself. You’re innocent. I mean, you created it but…”

“No,” Lark said with astonishing firmness. “I did this. There’s no light ahead for me. God will judge me now.”

“And Drake?” Marc asked angrily. “Who the fuck is going to judge him? These…kids. In those pictures. They’re not even…” He shuddered.

He watched Lark…change. A peace come over him. A…bliss.

“It’ll all come out. All of it. God will judge us all.”

“And what’s he going to do about it?” Marc shouted. “You’re crazy. You didn’t…”

Lark put a hand on Marc’s leg, the first time he’d ever touched him. “It’s okay. It’s all going to be fine. Let me handle this.”

“I’m your friend, Lark, I can’t watch you…”

“If you’re my friend, then trust me. Trust me to do what’s right.”

Some part of Marc knew that was absolutely not what he should do. And yet…he was a teenager, and turning things over to adults to solve was the last resort, when all other hope was exhausted.

“I don’t. I don’t trust you. But I won’t stop you. But listen to me. I’m going to defend you. No matter what you want.”

Lark smiled. “I know. I know you’ll do what’s right, too.”

 

Marc tried to keep it to himself. For a few hours. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t sit at the dinner table and watch his brother Andy laughing at their dad’s joke about the two centurions who walk into a bar, as his mom smiled indulgently.

His parents were the best. He knew that because he’d spent his whole life collating evidence on other kids’ parents. And they knew him, too, had been watching him just as curiously all his life.

“Andy,” Hadrian Julian said to his younger son. “Why don’t you take the car and this twenty bucks and go to the movies with your friend Debbie?”

Andy’s eyes widened. “Is Marc in trouble?” Andy wasn’t quite at Marc’s intellectual level, but he had the family intuition.

“No, but…just go. Have fun.”

Andy thought about it, but once the $20 bill was in his hand, his thoughts turned to Debbie and the next showing of “Blowin’ Shit Up IV: The Revenging.”

Marc sat on the couch without being asked. His parents took their chairs.

“Well?” His father asked.

Marc opened his mouth to talk. And began to cry instead.

His parents moved to the couch, took either side of him, and held him, let him cry. And he cried because Marc knew, somehow, that he’d never see Lark again.

 

Lark wasn’t at school the next day. Marc steeled himself for the scandal, the zero tolerance expulsions, the armada of TV news station vans parked in front of the school.

There were grim faces around, on the administrators and some of the teachers. And he didn’t see Drake, either. But that was it. A bomb had dropped on the school and nobody had noticed.

Kids asked their teachers about Drake – he was popular, after all. Nobody asked about Lark. Kids who asked about Drake were told he was out on a “family emergency.”

That was when Marc knew. The bomb would not explode. Everyone had decided to refuse to let it. It was all going to be hushed up.

“I want you to know,” he told his parents that night. “I’m going to hack into the school district computers tonight. I’m not going to change anything. But I’m going to get the facts. There have to be reports, emails…”

Hadrian shook his head. “I appreciate your honesty, Marc. And your thirst for justice. But no. Let us handle this.” He looked at his wife. “Your mother and I have our own methods of discovery.”

 

They made their inquiries, calling in favors, and, Marc suspected, making threats that they would carry out if necessary.

“Lark has been expelled,” his mother Julia told him. “His parents have sent him to…” She looked at her notes. “Resurrection Leadership Camp. Some kind of private Christian reform school.” She hesitated. “We looked it up on the Internet. They call it a ‘tough love environment.’ I’m sorry.”

“Oh my god,” Marc said. “He can’t…they’ll eat him alive in that kind of place.” His brow furrowed. “And Drake?”

Hadrian sighed. “Drake of course blames Lark. Says the whole thing was his idea, says that Lark was going to sell the…photos.”

“That’s a lie!”

“We know, Marc.” Hadrian’s voice darkened. “Drake played ‘the Bad Man made me’ card, as if Lark had the power to make him do anything,” he nearly spat. “He said that once Lark had the pictures, that Lark blackmailed him, made Drake perform sexual acts with him…”

“Lark isn’t even gay!” He frowned. “And Drake? Where’s he?”

“Transferred to a private school.”

“What! That’s it? He had…kiddie porn! He was taking pictures of little kids and…and I don’t wanna know what else. And that’s it? A fucking transfer?”

Julia put her hand on Marc’s. “The school administration is conspiring to hush it all up. Too many powerful people’s children were involved in this ring. Underage kids sending their naked pictures to each other… The scandal would bring down too many people.”

“So that’s it?” Marc spat. “He gets away with it?”

“No,” Hadrian said firmly. “But… the problem is, there’s no evidence we can use other than your word against Drake’s. And… Lark has admitted everything. He said it’s all true.”

“It’s not! He’s lying because he…because he feels guilty. Like it’s his fault all this happened. He’s got some…weird religious thing and he wants to be punished, I don’t know,” Marc said, the tears flowing again. “It’s not right. He’s not the guilty one.”

Hadrian held his son, in almost as much pain as Marc was. “I know. We’ll find a way, Marc, to make this right. I promise.”

 

Injustice is the essence of adolescence. All the pabulum you’ve been fed in school about how the world should be suddenly smashes head on into the way it is. The happy smiling kids on the children’s programming you grew up with are suddenly revealed as some kind of fucking alternate universe dwellers.

“It’s so unfair!” every teenager shouts with good reason, based on what they’ve been taught. But Marc’s sense of injustice had more than just shock behind it. What had happened to Lark was more than “unfair.” It was unjust. Wrong. Criminally wrong.

And Drake… He started following Drake. Not in person, too obvious. Even Drake and his lunkhead friends could have caught on to that. No, he picked up Drake’s digital trail, which was even better. He ran brute-force password attacks on only three Facebook profiles before he found himself logged into the account of one of Drake’s (now former) teammates, whose easy-to-remember password was… “password.”

He’d click on Drake’s name and watch his timeline. It was 2008, and parents were more concerned with the horrible effect of violent video games on their children, and kids had no clue how much of what they posted would return to haunt them years later. Drake was thriving at his new school, of course, having let it out, Marc deduced from his posts and comments, that he’d been a little too sexually active with a teacher at his old school.

That was rich, Marc fumed. Blaming an older woman for your expulsion, when you’re a fucking pedo.

Drake was smart enough to have created a password Marc couldn’t break easily, but it was apparent enough from his timeline that he was up to it again. There was Drake in a post, shirtless with his bros, eyes glassy, grin cocky, Solo cup held up high and proud. And there were the comments from girls like Caitlyn – “Hot Bod!” And replies from Drake – “U wanna see more? 🙂 PM me LOL.”

Marc clicked on Caitlyn’s profile. Yeah. She was thirteen.

He showed his Facebook research to his parents, and was astonished when they chided him.

“Marc,” Hadrian said sternly. “We can’t use this. You hacked into that boy’s account. That’s identity theft under the law. You broke the law to get this.”

“He’s flirting with a thirteen year old girl!”

Hadrian took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “I know. But even if we could use this, it’s still only flirting.”

“Well maybe I should hack little Caitlyn’s account, too, and see what’s in those PMs.”

“Marc!” His father shouted. “Enough!”

Marc was stunned. His father hadn’t yelled at him since he was five years old, curious about what would happen if he put his finger in a light socket.

His mother Julia stepped into the fray. “We’ve hired a private detective. This Caitlyn girl, we can tell him about her. He can…I don’t know, reverse engineer some way to get more information legitimately. But Marc, you’ve got to stop breaking the law. We can’t protect you if you’re caught. You’ll be in trouble and…”

She broke off, and Marc’s intuition let him finish her sentence. “And Lark will still be in Jesus prison or whatever.”

She took his hand. “I don’t know if we can do anything about that, honey. His parents sent him there, and they’re clearly…unbalanced people.”

“But they’d…” he left off. Hiding his tears from his parents, he stormed from the room.

 

Marc took long walks, a habit he’d picked up from his father. Only now he walked alone. Thinking.

This wasn’t what Lark wanted. Lark wanted, for whatever screwed-up reason, to be punished. But he didn’t want Drake to go scot free. The poor fool thought that if he turned himself in, that Jehovah would burst out of the clouds, thunderbolts in hand, and smite all the smite-worthy fuckers involved.

Clearly Lark didn’t count on Jehovah being good pals with the president of the school board, the Reverend Doctor Samuel Calvin, whose horror at anything sexual occurring in his district was so intense that he was more than willing to sweep it all under the rug.

And the gigantic hole in any of Marc’s schemes was that Lark’s “punishment” wasn’t under law – it couldn’t be undone just because the truth came out. It was his crazy religious parents who’d sent him there, not the court system. Even getting Drake sent to jail wouldn’t help Lark.

He just walked, through the university campus, through the forest behind the family’s house, up and down the streets, trying, trying to think of a way to help Lark. To save his only friend.

 

And then one day, he checked the mailbox when he got home, and there was a letter from Lark, in a Resurrection Leadership Camp envelope. Exhilarated, he tore it open and read it on the front porch.

Hi Marc. My parents attested to your faith, and so the camp is letting me drop you a line to let you know how I’m doing.

Marc sighed. All the time he’d wasted memorizing all that smiting and begatting had not all been wasted after all.

I have my Sleeve Ripped like Tamar in 2 Samuel, to show that I’m not pure, and I know it. I’ve violated myself and my soul, using Vain Arts To deceive and ruin lives. I know it Began Its course when I first touched a computer, and I’ve sworn never to touch one again, praise be to God for showing me this is what I must do. I know that A Lax spirit Eludes not the Busy devil, and I work hard here to cleanse my soul through work and prayer.

Don’t fear for me, Marc. I’m not the one you need to save. But those other poor souls, you must help them. You know as I do what applies to our case; as it says in Romans 6:18. “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”

Your friend in Christ,

Lark.

 

His first feeling had been excitement, delight, that Lark had reached out to him. Then, confusion, as Lark’s tone was so obviously not his own, but that of someone “under duress.” Which of course he was – they would have vetted his letter before he could send it out.

And then, some instinct kicked in, some part of his brain that had read the letter with a different set of eyes. There was something here, something Lark was trying to tell him.

“You know as I do what applies to our case…” That didn’t make sense. That Bible verse, it made no sense. It was…random.

Hadrian Julian found his son standing on the doorstep when he got home, puzzling over the letter. His son didn’t even notice him.

Hadrian bent down and picked the envelope up off the ground. When he saw the return address, he knew.

“Marc,” he said gently, “come inside.”

 

They sat on the couch and Marc waited while his father read the letter.

“There’s…something in it, some…message,” Marc said. “I’m sure of it.”

Hadrian nodded. “I am, too. What’s all this about attesting to your faith?”

Marc told his father the story. Hadrian laughed. “Well, I never would have taken you for a Bible scholar. But given that, I assume you know what Lark was referring to with the ripped sleeve?”

“2 Samuel. Tamar was a virgin, a daughter of King David, who was raped by her half-brother Amnon. She smeared ashes on her forehead, and ripped the sleeve of the garment that had identified her as one of King David’s virgin daughters. And David didn’t punish Amnon, though the Bible didn’t say why.”

“Ah,” Professor Hadrian Julian smiled. “You memorized the Bible, but it’s the Dead Sea Scrolls that explain that Amnon was King David’s first born son, and you know how Kings are about those. And remember that two years later, Absalom killed Amnon for raping Tamar.”

“Oh shit,” Marc said. “Is Lark saying he was raped in there?”

“Let’s not rush to conclusions just yet. The capitalization is odd, some random words are capitalized. Did you ever read anything else Lark wrote, is that just a tic of his?”

“No. No, he was always very precise. Perfect grammar and spelling in his papers.” Marc looked at his father. “So he meant to do that. It’s a message.”

His father handed Marc a pad and paper. Mark wrote down the mysteriously capitalized words.

He read them out loud. “Sleeved Ripped Vain Arts To Began Its A Lax Eludes Busy. We can discard God and Christ, so to speak. I don’t…”

Hadrian knew his son. “You’re thinking too hard. Let that intuition of yours work on it. Go take a walk in the woods.”

 

Marc scuffed down the trail in the woods, smiling grimly as he thought to himself, Three fucking cheers for Absalom. But I can’t wait two years for justice to be done.

He thought back on his happy days hanging out with Lark. Lark was a crypto obsessive, Marc knew. There was some code in this letter, something he wasn’t seeing. Lark had smuggled him a secret message, but what was the key?

Marc had looked dubiously at David Kahn’s massive book The Codebreakers, when Lark had foisted it on him, urging him to read it.

“You’ll love it, I promise.”

Marc flipped through it, pausing here and there to look at a table. “It all looks pretty outdated. Most of this I could solve in my head with…”

“No, no,” Lark interrupted. “You read it for the history. For the people, the nutjobs like us who got into crypto. And for the stories. The psychology behind the strategies. See, that’s the great thing about crypto. The security of the message is exactly as strong as the key. If the enemy can’t figure out how you’ve encoded the message, they can never decode it.”

He held up a finger. “But! It doesn’t have to be a monstrously complicated mathematical formula, it just had to be deceptive. It doesn’t even have to be encrypted, just…hidden.”

Lark took the book back and flipped through the pages. “Here. This is one of my favorites. It’s steganography, not cryptography, but the point is…Here it is.” He squinted to read the small text.

“‘Herodotus tells how another revolt—this one against the Persians—was set in motion by one of the most bizarre means of secret communication ever recorded. One Histiaeus, wanting to send word from the Persian court to his son-in-law, the tyrant Aristagoras at Miletus, shaved the head of a trusted slave, tattooed the secret message thereon, waited for a new head of hair to grow, then sent him off to his son-in-law with the instruction to shave the slave’s head. When Aristagoras had done so, he read on the slave’s scalp the message that urged him to revolt against Persia.’”

Lark slammed the book shut, a wild grin on his face. “See? It’s not just about math, it’s about psychology. Not always about inventing a super complicated cipher, just…putting a message where nobody would ever think to look for it. How fucking cool is that?”

Marc laughed. “If it’s cool enough to get you to swear, I’m interested.”

Lark blushed. “Sorry. I do love this sh…stuff,” he grinned.

 

That night Marc tossed and turned in bed. He was angry at himself. Angry that he’d failed to solve what was clearly an obvious, easy task. This wasn’t some heavily encrypted message. It was staring him in the face, the answer, but it was as if he had a blind spot that just couldn’t see it. And he’d never solve it if he didn’t get some…

“Oh holy shit!” he shouted, bolting upright in bed. “I got it.”

He knocked furiously on his parents’ bedroom door. His father opened it, bleary-eyed.

“Marc, it’s two in the morning…”

“I figured it out. Come on.” He didn’t wait for Hadrian, but ran downstairs and pushed Start on the coffee maker.

By the time his father had sat down at the kitchen table with a mug in hand, Marc had written it all down. He pushed the paper to his father, watching his eyes grow wider as he read each line.

Sleeved Ripped = sleep deprived

Vain Arts To = starvation

Began Its = beatings

A Lax Eludes Busy = sexually abusive

“And that last quote,” Marc said. “‘Having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.’ Get it? This place has made them slaves of these self-righteous fuckers.”

Hadrian stared at the paper. “This is… I don’t know if it’s enough to convince anyone in authority to…”

“It has to be!” Marc shouted angrily. “I’m telling you, this is Lark telling us what’s going on. ‘Don’t fear for me, I’m not the one you need to save.’ He needs us to shut this place down because of what’s happening to those other kids.”

“It’s…it’s thin. It’s not enough to get the police to go in, I don’t think. But I know someone at the law school, whose brother is a judge…”

“Call him, now!”

Hadrian held up a hand. “Marc. I will call him. This morning.”

Marc couldn’t stand it, the idea that whatever was happening to Lark would go on for one more minute. But he also knew that look on his father’s face.

“Early. You promise.”

Hadrian nodded grimly, and Marc was reassured by the anger he saw there now as his father read the paper again. “Yes. Very early indeed.”

 

Marc finally slept for a few hours. But when he woke up, it was to his father’s touch. “Marc. I’m so sorry.”

The look on Hadrian’s face told Marc everything.

“What happened?”

“It’s…it’s on the news this morning. They say a boy hung himself at the camp.”

It’s amazing, sometimes, how cold you can feel when you get news like that. They call it shock. It’s like your brain is a desk, and a hand just swept across it, and all the objects on it, the bits and pieces of your daily life, were hurled to the ground, leaving a bare surface.

“He didn’t,” Marc said with certainty. “He wouldn’t. I know him. He hadn’t suffered enough.”

“We don’t know it was Lark yet,” his father said tentatively.

“Yes we do,” Marc said. Hadrian didn’t contradict him this time. “And maybe he did hang himself,” he said, with a cold analytical candor that almost terrified his father. “Judas Iscariot.”

Hadrian flinched. “You think he hung himself out of guilt.”

“And to force events. To make someone go in there and see what was happening.” He started to shake, to shiver, at last. “It’s my fault. If I’d figured the message out sooner…”

His father swept him into his embrace. “No, Marc, no. It’s not your fault. It was going to take days, weeks, to get the wheels turning, to get someone to investigate, you could have figured it out the first day and Lark would still have died. But now…”

He leaned back and took his son’s face in his hands. “Lark wasn’t dumb. He knew that…I hate to say it, but…”

Marc finished for him. “The letter was only the first part of his plan.”

“Now, you see, they’ll listen to what we have to say, what we found in the letter. Today. Nobody else will suffer there another day.”

“He sacrificed himself,” Marc said. “For those other kids. The dumb bastard.”

Hadrian stroked his son’s hair. “Come on. Let’s get dressed and go see the police.”

 

Marc wanted to speak at Lark’s funeral. About his brilliance, his kindness, his gentle spirit. But there was no funeral. Whatever flavor of religious crazy that his family subscribed to believed that suicide was blah blah blah…

But they did bury him. In a small plot, with a small headstone. Marc sat in the car with his mother Julia while they waited for the cemetery employees to finish their work and leave.

“Marc,” she said tentatively. “I hope you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking.”

Marc’s father was the Bible scholar, as any professor of pagan literature needed to be – know thine enemy and all that. His mother was a professor, but she specialized in Romantic literature, and her acquaintance with the Bible was at the familiar quotations level.

Marc quoted Deuteronomy 32:35. “‘In due time their foot will slip; For the day of their calamity is near, And the impending things are hastening upon them.’”

She smiled with relief, and got out of the car. “Let’s go say goodbye.”

But Marc had omitted the first line of the text.

“‘Vengeance is Mine, and retribution.’”

 

It was most definitely time for some motherfucking Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction Old Testament Shit. But how?

Marc sat down and wrote out a chronology of events, like a real homicide detective, creating a “murder book.” Then he stared at it, trying to find the opening, the key.

It didn’t take long. That girl from Facebook, Caitlyn Baldwin, the thirteen-year-old whom Drake had invited to PM him. He hacked her account easily enough – her password was MyLittlePony, which made Marc nauseous, thinking about Drake even talking to someone that innocent.

He found her conversations with Drake. Sickened, he printed them out.

She had two brothers. She was often praying for one of them, who apparently didn’t have a Facebook profile.

Marc found him on MySpace, but his page had been abandoned there, a few months earlier. The last post said only, “Busted. Back 2 juvie I guess. Life suks.” There were a few pix of him and his friends, partying, and now Marc would know him when he saw him.

Kevin Baldwin was seventeen years old, with a history of violence. The whole family looked fucked up to Marc, which was probably why Caitlyn had responded to Drake’s overtures so eagerly but…that wasn’t his problem. He had a goal and he was going to stick to it.

He found Kevin working at a fast food joint. Marc waited, patiently, behind the building, sure that Kevin’s break would involve a cigarette.

He was right. Kevin was pretty much a smear of a boy, with a mug shot of a face that would make decent people nod over their coffee, all their prejudices against the lower classes confirmed when they saw it on the morning news.

“Who the fuck are you?”

Marc handed Kevin the printout. Kevin jumped back. “Oh no, you ain’t servin’ me any papers.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Marc snapped. “I’m a fucking teenager, not a process server. This is about your little sister, Caitlyn.”

The boy ceased to be a smudge, a smear, at the sound of his sister’s name. His face became human, hurt. Memories, bad ones. He cared about her. A lot. Perfect.

“Gimme that.” His face scrunched with the pain of reading, but he could read, anyway. Then it contorted with something else.

“Who the fuck is Drake Walton? Where is he?”

“He got my best friend killed. And he’s this close to going all the way with your sister. As you can see, he’s already rounded a few bases.”

Kevin looked at him. Nodded. “I get it.” He wasn’t that stupid after all, Marc realized. It was a feral, uncultivated intelligence, but it was there. Good.

“Tomorrow, he’ll be arrested on a fraud charge. He’ll be remanded into custody at the JCC.”

“You’re gonna make that happen.”

“Yeah. Get yourself arrested tomorrow night.”

Kevin’s eyes were dead stones. Very, very good.

“I’m gonna kill him, you know.”

“Well, you’re still underage. The penalty may not be so harsh.” Marc pointed at the printout. “Especially when this comes out, as it will, I promise you.”

Kevin examined Marc, his street smarts, his instinct for bullshit, weighing the other boy. “He killed your friend?”

“Not directly. It’s complicated. But yes, in the end, he’s the sole reason my friend is dead.”

Kevin nodded, his eyes going blank, his face a smear again, a smudge, a mug shot.

“Okay, then.”

 

The next evening, Drake was arrested after a complaint arrived on a detective’s desk, about some purchases made online with a stolen credit card. His parents were out of town, would of course race home to get him out, but it wouldn’t be till the next day.

That same evening, Kevin Baldwin threw a beer bottle at a police car, and was promptly arrested and remanded into custody.

And then, once again, the power of Death moved mountains that would have never moved otherwise. Especially after the news broke in the morning, about the murder of Drake Walton in the juvenile detention center, at the hands of another inmate.

Marc called Secret Witness from a burner phone. The detectives should investigate the dead boy’s connection to his killer’s little sister. Should subpoena their Facebook chats. And, by the way, it would be a good idea to call the Reverend Doctor Samuel Calvin and ask him why Drake Walton had been transferred out of the public school system.

Marc’s mother and father watched the evening news wordlessly. “Marc,” Julia said carefully, “If you had anything to do with any of this…”

“No,” he lied. “That girl’s brother must have found out on his own.”

She pressed the issue. “Drake was arrested for using a stolen credit card to make some online purchases.”

Marc raised an eyebrow. “Is that so shocking? That a pedophile would use a stolen credit card?”

“But…”

Hadrian put his hand over hers. “Julia. Let it go. Justice was done, somehow. You can’t deny that.”

“A teenage pedophile is dead.” She sighed. “It’s hard to feel a lot of pity. I just…” She looked at Marc.

She paused. “You can’t take justice into your own hands, Marc. I know you’re bright, so bright, and I know you were angry, and you have every reason to be. But that’s not how the world works. You’re not a superhero.”

“No,” he agreed. “I’m not. Trust me. I’m done playing detective.”

And, at the time, he meant it with all his heart.

 

Shock sweeps the desk clean. Grief lets you acknowledge what got broken when it all fell to the floor. Then you have to “pick up the pieces,” as they say so accurately.

The thing is, the stuff that fell to the floor is so much heavier now than it was when you put it on the desk. It takes so much more effort to lift those things now, to put them back where they belong. The things that weren’t smashed to bits, of course.

“I need to go there,” Marc told his father a few weeks later.

Hadrian Julian didn’t need to ask where “there” was.

He nodded. “Okay.”

They drove the freeway in silence for about an hour, then took the turnoff to a two-lane road. Up a twisting path they went, until they reached a compound.

The gate was open. The high steel mesh fence behind which the “students” had been kept, more appropriate to a minimum security prison than a camp, would no longer keep anyone in or out. It had only been weeks, but the place already had the eerie long-abandoned feel Marc knew from photos of the ruins of old Detroit.

The building was a one-story complex, its plans lifted from some public elementary school. Only there were no swings, no grass, no place to escape the tedium of the long day for even a second. There was a concrete square where, Marc now knew, the students had been abruptly massed in ranks at any time of the day or night, to stand at attention, shivering or sweating.

He knew very well from the news reports where the dormitories were. The door was broken down, the windows smashed. The place had been looted after its closure by the authorities, yeah, but there was more here. It was apparent that some of the “students” had returned to wreak revenge – if they couldn’t touch their captors, they could at least have the therapeutic experience of destroying the prison. FUCK THIS SHITHOLE was spray painted on the wall by the dormitory door.

The hard metal bunk beds were still intact in the dormitory, where three dozen boys had been held. There was little sunlight, only a few slices from high slim windows that were only opened to let out the worst of the summer heat – high and slim enough that no boy, even those who’d endured the worst of the “prayer and fasting” punishments, could get through them.

Marc hesitated before entering the showers. It was an open space, with a low cinderblock wall separating the showers from the dressing area, more to keep the water from flooding the rest of the room than to give any privacy.

He swallowed. Here, things had been…done to Lark. Done by boys who’d had things done to them, by the boys who came before them, as abuse begat abuse begat abuse. Other boys, prettier than Lark, who’d received the staff’s loving and error-correcting attentions, had been “ministered to” elsewhere.

He looked up at the pipes running along the ceiling. Somewhere in this room, Lark had died.

The story had come out, of course, all of it. Not in the daily fish wrap that landed on the porch every morning, run by the same elements who put men like the Reverend Doctor Samuel Calvin in charge of the school system.

But the Internet had told him everything; the story was national news. Had told him in far more detail than he could stand to read. And yet read it he did. It was his own penance, for not saving Lark. To read every detail.

Lark had carried his plan out so well. He’d hung himself right in the middle of one of those desultory “inspections” by the Health Department. He’d been discovered when the inspector, paid off by the camp for her inability to see cockroaches, arrived on the scene. It was one thing for a civil service employee to take bribes to hush up showers whose drains were nearly clogged with hair and dirt. But quite another to ask her to lie about turning a corner and shrieking at the sight of a dead boy.

Marc sat down on the cold floor, and waited for the ghost of his friend to appear.

And appear he did, manifesting inside Marc, in the racking sobs, the howls of grief, that echoed within the indifferent walls. Nobody could hear him here, nobody could see him weak, broken, lost. Only here where there had been so much danger for others was he safe to mourn.

Eventually the sobs passed. He wiped his nose on his sleeve, let his breath stop hitching, and stood up.

“I’m sorry,” he said to the empty room. And then he turned and left his childhood behind.

6 Comments on Marc’s Backstory from “Strength” – WARNING tough sledding ahead…

  1. Excellent

  2. Very powerful and so well done.

  3. awesome Brad!

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