Breaking his arm the way he did–and in front of his dad no less–left Jermaine all kinds of salty. Not on a football field or as a result of some extreme macho dare. Naw, it had to happen at his dad’s first contract job in a month, when money was already tight, after his dad swallowed his pride enough to let Jermaine tag along in the first place.
“My right-hand man,” Dad had said, giving Jermaine the slick side of a five that morning before strapping him up with a tool belt and boots. A couple hours later, Jermaine watched in slow-mo as his hammer did a video-game ricochet out of his hand, off the nail, then the scaffolding, and finally back into his face, causing him to fall backward and land on his arm.
Instant fracture. “Boy, don’t even worry about it,” Dad said between bouts of furious face-rubbing when he didn’t think Jermaine paid attention. Jermaine knew the deal; he felt the shiftless tension at home. Mom already had that look in her eyes of being fed up with Dad’s unreliable ways, the uneven movement of someone already weighing her options and finding the scales pointing to GO.
Dad was sure he’d lost the job. Having an uninsured minor at a construction site doing work? Dad counted the minutes until he got the call to kick rocks. To his surprise, though, Mr. Thule, proprietor of the Thurston House, the building under renovation and construction, did not want to immediately fire him. But he did want to see him and his unlucky son.
“Great,” Jermaine mumbled to himself. The last memories he had of the place was being in pain, his father crouched over him with a concern that pushed the pain deeper, past his bone. And above his father’s head, between them and the darkening sky, stone monsters smiled and whispered.
Something rubbed him the wrong way about the Thurston House, and try as he might not admit it, he knew that unease had fed into the accident and his broken arm.
As he and his father walked up the entranceway to the old place, Jermaine’s skin crawled again. The spidery arch work seemed to move. The ugly gargoyles stared down with dull eyes.
“And this must be the bad luck bear,” Mr. Thule joked through brown lips. Jermaine smiled politely and shook his hand through his cast. He’d asked his Dad if Mr. Thule was blind because he always wore huge shades. “Some people just weird like that,” his Dad replied, anxious.
“Mr. Thule, I’m soooo sorry about bringing my son to work with me and having this happen. I promise–”
“Don’t even worry about it. Accidents happen!” he said all-too-jovially. “Your reputation as a fine craftsman tells me tells me this is a minor blip. And as I said before on the phone, I will pay ALL your son’s medical fees.”
“That’s…that’s really not necessary. We couldn’t accept,” his father started hesitantly, as if hoping not to be stuck with a dinner tab after only ordering appetizers.
“I insist. Besides, brother to brother,” Thule leaned close to Dad, the same way old men told dirty jokes, “if we don’t help each other, who will?” The smile widened even more. A wink was implied behind the opaque blackness of his shades.
“I hear that,” Dad agreed sycophantly.
It was as good as settled. Thule turned to Jermaine, and he felt like a hot, dark light shined on him. “I don’t see any signatures there, young man!” The way Mr. Thule ended his sentences on a high note grated Jermaine–he’d never known any black man to speak like that, and it threw him off–as did having his lack of friends pointed out. “Why don’t you let me be the first?”
Jermaine really didn’t want to, but his father eyed them intently. Mr. Thule reached into his pocket for a marker.
Two circles. A triangle underneath. Four vertical lines.
“There you go. Just a sign of good luck I learned from my time in South America!”
“Gee…thanks.” Jermaine looked at it. There was something familiar about it, something he knew he’d seen before, and often. Some recognizable yet hidden in plain sight, a puzzle waiting for him to squint the right way before the pieces fit.
“Once again, thank you very much, Mr. Thule. I promise not to let you down.” His father and Thule’s voices faded into the background, as Jermaine studied his cast, wracking his brain for something that refused to come.
“Your broken arm’s not contagious. Go talk to her,” his dad nudged him, obviously now in a much better mood.
“C’mon, Dad, don’t start,” Jermaine whispered back. They sat in the doctor’s office, waiting for the chief administrator to come back from lunch and take the check Mr. Thule had cut them on the spot. A few chairs down sat a girl he recognized from school–Sheila, was it?–and Jermaine had made the mistake of letting her catch him glancing at her.
Most girls like an admirer, but nobody likes a creep, his mom had warned him.
“Mr. Grace,” a woman called from behind the paned glass, and Dad got up and went to the back, not bothering to ask if Jermaine wanted to come with.
Jermaine sighed. Despite his best efforts, he found himself glancing at Sheila one last time, only to find her staring at him. A “caught ya!” smile crept on her face.
Jermaine bowed his head, and the next thing he knew Sheila was sitting next to him, her casted left arm brushing against his casted right one.
“You’re being creepy,” she said, making sure to stare at the side of his face.
“I know,” he muttered. “Sorry.”
She snorted. “Dang, I was joking. Unclench, man. You don’t mind me sitting here, do you? You weren’t going to come to me.”
“Sure you mind, or sure I can sit here? Be specific, man.”
He felt trapped. She placed a hand on his leg.
“Just. Joking. Sorry, I forget people who don’t know me don’t get my sense of humor. I’m Sheila, by the way.”
“I know.” Oh, why did he have to admit that? “I’m Jermaine.”
“Yeah, I know. Cast bump.” She held up her left arm, waiting for Jermaine to meet it with his right one. He did with a thump almost as loud as his heart.
“Cast bump? Did you just make that up?”
“I’m creative that way. Hey, I like those.” She pointed to the marks on his cast, which he’d suddenly forgotten after spending the last hour going crazy analyzing. “Do mine like that.” She confidently walked up to the office sign-in and took the marker. Jermaine’s eyes followed every step.
“Uh sure,” he said with a bit more assuredness than he had at the beginning of their conversation.
Two circles. A triangle. Four vertical lines.
Drawing with his left hand was difficult, and he was sure what he’d drawn would look like a mess, but when he finished it sat perfectly. Nearly identical in every way, angle by angle, inch by inch.
“Thanks, J. You mind if I call you J?” That “caught ya” grin again.
“Nobody calls me that.”
“You calling me a nobody now?” she needled, seemingly relishing keep him on edge. “Told you. My friends get my humor. And you’re going to be my friend.” She started to furiously scratch her left arm. “Does yours itch like this?”
His right arm didn’t, but suddenly his left one did. He tried to scratch it with his cast.
“You must really like me to be copying me like that. Why don’t you take that marker and write down your number too?”
Two circles. A triangle. Four vertical lines. And Sheila’s number.
Jermaine couldn’t keep his eyes off his suddenly lucky cast on the ride back home.
“My right-hand man got game!” his Dad teased, looking at him every now and then from the driver’s seat.
Jermaine rolled his eyes. Not even dad-humor or the insistent itching from his left arm could affect his mood.
In his room, he debated how long he should take to call her, but luckily she took the decision out of his sweaty, shaking hand. His basic-af Samsung rung, and he answered after two rings.
“I would’ve given it three rings, but that’s just me,” she said, starting the conversation off the same way every conversation would be between them, Jermaine imagined.
They talked about school, their summer, and the troubles within the confines of home. He pretended the ignore the sound of her parents arguing in the background, and thankfully she returned the favor.
“I think I must’ve caught something from you. My arm won’t stop itching.”
“Only thing you caught from me was a whiff of that high life, little boy.”
“You fine, but you ain’t all that,” he said in humor. The line went silent.
Uh-oh. His heart raced and he felt the beginnings of a sweat. Had he gone too far?
Finally, she started laughing, maniacally. “I didn’t think you had in you, J. I’m bringing out that snark!”
Relieved, he dug the nail of his right thumb into his pointer.
“Ouch!” she said. “It’s like I just got pinched.”
He looked at his right hand, and then his itchy left. Being young, he believed in karma and kismet and all that junk in a boyishly romantic way, but there was an eeriness creeping into his consciousness he didn’t find comforting.
“Listen, gotta go. Holla at me tomorrow, alright,” she said, hanging up.
Going to sleep had taken longer than usual, yet when it happened, it happened hard. He found himself dreaming of Sheila, just as he figured he would. They kissed and became one, she the left side, he the right. Their hearts beat outside of themselves, like a clock hiding on a high shelf. Conjoined, they walked outside, under twin, dark globes, beaming down upon them a dark light that felt too hot to be moonlight.
The twin moons reminded him of the eyes of a stone monster on high, looking down upon him over his father’s shoulders, telling him his fractured arm would be replaced by something stronger. Something better. Something a part of a bigger whole.
Now they were in a field, the middle of which stood one structure, with its spidery arch work and windows from which nothing ever reflected.
He started to back away, but with every step the invisible force, the all-seeing blackness, ripped at him and Sheila, tearing them apart tendon by tendon, cell by cell. Agonizing pain seared throughout his body.
“Ain’t no going back, chap! Either you in or you out! Your happiness is in HIS hands now!” said a voice in an unbearably high pitch at the end of each sentence.
Jermaine woke up in a cold sweat. He expected, hoped, that his left arm would itch, but it didn’t. Instead, the sensation of soft, invisible brushing of the fingertips of his left arm–a nervous tick to her as much like the squeezing of his fist had been to him–made him know that Sheila was also awake.
His phone sat on his dresser. This time it was he that called. This time it was she that answered after two rings.
“Yeah, I had the same dream…” The rest of the conversation with Sheila must’ve happened, although Jermaine couldn’t remember it while he walked alone in the night.
At some they decided to go, to meet up there, to squint into the darkness, until the pieces of the puzzle would finally fit into place.
The Thurston House wasn’t within walking distance of his home, yet he’d gotten there within an hour. Dream time while awake, the slow leaking of moments between phantom worlds.
“What is this place?” Sheila arrived from his left, her nightgown just as sweat-stained as his t-shirt.
He wanted to answer, but realized he probably didn’t know any better than she did, or the other kids who suddenly appeared, with casts on their right or left legs, with bent fingers or crooked noses, with ribs that made it hard to breathe.
All with one thing in common other than a broken core. Two circles. A triangle. Four verticle lines.
“You’re home, at a pre-reunion, if you must,” Mr. Thule said, appearing at the entrance, once again ending his sentences a pitch too high, hiding behind glasses a hue too low. He took them, revealing eyes that were even blacker than his shades. Hot eyes that made the cool night air give up its moisture. “Unique parts of a whole, come together to help usher HIM back into this world.”
A squirming sound emanated from the sky, of a thousand squid-like arms reaching for a long-closed door. Sheila and Jermaine grabbed each other’s unmarred hand, two parts trying to become one. Their fingers felt clammy and slick.
Jermaine looked at the symbols on his cast again, seeing the face he’d refused to see before.
Mr. Thule now stood in front of him. “I see you brought a friend. Good chap. He welcomes one and all!”
The symbols, like everything else if you looked hard enough, formed a face. A face tired of being ignored. A face ready to open its jaws in exultation. A black, old face ready to take back what belonged to it.
“You two can be together, you know? In HIM. All of you made the decision to come here on you own. All ya have to do is say yes one more time. What’ll it be, right-hand man…”
Two eyes. A nose. And a thousand arms reaching down to hell.