School was out! All the kids galloped towards freedom in case the scary headmistress, Crazy Eye, ambushed them with a last minute detention. Every student in the school lived in mortal terror of Crazy Eye. Not that they would have dared to call her that to her face. It was a nickname that came about from a mistake. Some parents had been talking at the bus stop and one of the kids thought he had overheard them call the headmistress ‘Crazy Eye’. Joey’s ma had been there and she patiently explained to Joey that the words uttered were ‘lazy eye’. Joey thought there was nothing lazy about that eye, it followed the students all over school. It was like the eye in the film ‘Flight of the Navigator’, except not as friendly; when no one was looking it would push out from the socket and peep around corners. Totally gross.
Crazy Eye had the supernatural ability to seemingly manifest from thin air. Even if someone had checked the coast was clear – empty corridors, stairs or classrooms – she still caught the offender red-handed. Many believed she was a witch.
Forget his first kiss or asking a girl out to the prom, Joey’s most nerve-racking moment in his school life was being summoned to Crazy Eye’s office. He got caught up in some trouble. It involved a girl. Doesn’t it always? Joey was sweet on Casey-Anne ever since their kiss underneath the bleachers. It was embedded in his memory. The sound of the basketball bouncing off the court surface, the stamping of feet on the bleachers, the cheerleaders swishing their pompoms, the uproar when the home team scored. He could feel something amazing was going to happen. And there he was, alone with Casey-Anne, hidden from prying eyes. They had been playing with a paper fortune teller. Joey was hypnotised as the folds opened and closed until it revealed its message, a scrawled red heart. Their kiss tasted of strawberry laces. Casey-Anne was Joey’s first kiss and his prom date. Between those two events was the school bully, Brad ‘Biffer’ Dubicheck. A hulking creature who could only express himself with short words and meaty punches. His activities mainly involved extorting lunch money or Hershey Bars and being generally unpleasant.
Joey was walking with Casey-Anne, heading to the school library, when their path was blocked by Brad. Joey’s instinct was to turn and head off in the opposite direction. Before he could grab Casey-Anne’s hand to make a tactical retreat, he heard her speak.
“Brad Dubicheck! Aren’t you just the most horrible boy in the ENTIRE school!”
There were gasps from other students who were in the vicinity. Brad blinked like Casey-Anne had punched him in the face. This was uncharted territory. No boy had ever challenged Brad. Even the vaguest murmur of a protest meant the kid would end up with a busted lip. A girl standing up to Brad was huge, bigger than an 80s perm. Joey would have loved to be a bystander but he was part of the drama. Joey didn’t speak because his mouth was completely dry. Brad didn’t speak because his was brain was still trying to process what was happening. Casey-Anne fixed Brad with a stare, she put her hand on her hip and followed up with her next missile strike.
“Well, are you going to get your big butt out of the way?”
The tension was unbearable. A girl half-screamed and fainted. No one went to pick her up, they couldn’t risk missing anything. This story would make the whole school year worthwhile. Forget about average grades or pushy parents, this would cement status if you could start a sentence with “Were you there when Casey-Anne smart-mouthed Brad Dubicheck?”
The confusion cleared from Brad’s face, the brain had caught up. His right hand batted Casey-Anne’s left shoulder so roughly that a book fell out of her bag. Brad sneered at her.
“I’m gonna dump your book in the toilet!”
Joey saw red. He ran at Brad and pushed into him with both of his hands. Brad toppled over like an upside down windmill. Oh crap! Joey looked at his hands as if they were possessed. Brad hauled himself up and pinned Joey to the wall. Joey was ready to be pounded back to the Stone Age.
A voice sliced through the air and students shrunk away. Crazy Eye had been drawn to the disturbance.
“Brad Dubicheck, Joey Stevens, my office, now!”
Crazy Eye dispensed with Brad quickly.
“This was your last strike. This school has no place for you. You are expelled, clear out your locker. The school secretary will phone your mother.”
Joey kept his eyes fixed on the tips of his sneakers. Expulsion! Brad shuffled out of the office in silence. Then it was just Joey. What was he going to say to his parents? There was only one school in his town. Would his parents kick him out of the house? He might end up like one of those drunken bums that were always slumped outside Piggly Wiggly stores. Or maybe they would send him to a military academy in Alaska? Crazy Eye wasn’t saying anything. It was freaking him out.
“Joey, I believe you have a study session in the library, I suggest you make up for lost time.”
“Are you deaf, young man? Back to your studies!”
This June was the hottest Joey could remember. The four weeks at the family cabin was always the highlight of his summer. The lake was an hour away from town. Joey’s pa drove all the way with the windows down. Joey had his head stuck out of the window, enjoying the breeze until his ma told him off. He still got a thrill as they passed the sign which said ‘Private Land’ and headed up the long narrow winding road to the lake. Their cabin was two hundred metres from the water. There were other cabins dotted around the perimeter of the lake and more still at the end of dirt tracks which peppered the woods.
After Joey had helped his parents, he ran down the slope to the jetty. As usual, Jeb was sat at the end of it with a fishing rod and a craftily concealed hip flask. Jeb was a grizzled old man who kept an eye on the cabins out of season. He was also Joey’s friend. Jeb had taught him to fish and told him stories. Joey handed over the bottle of rye his parents always bought Jeb. He chuckled and ruffled Joey’s hair. Joey told Jeb all about Brad because it was his biggest news ever. Well, the kiss with Casey-Anne was big too but Joey reckoned that wasn’t suitable man talk.
“It takes guts to stand up for someone, you did good, champ!”
Joey spent the afternoon fishing with Jeb until his ma reeled him in for dinner.
Maybe Joey was emboldened by events at school. One day, he decided to explore the woods on the far side of the lake. It was uncharted territory and a big adventure. Sunlight filtered through the leafy boughs. He saw two raccoons racing through the undergrowth and left the path to see where they were heading. Joey discovered a cabin far away from all the others. It had a rusty pick up truck parked outside of it. He could see animal skins pegged out on wooden pegs. It was real creepy. He tiptoed away. His nerves were jangling, he was sure someone was watching him. Joey panicked and started running. He tripped over a rotting log. The log split and it was teeming with maggots and weevils. A shadow loomed over him. Brad Dubicheck was holding a large stick and he struck Joey in the face with it. Joey could taste blood in his mouth. Brad had a cruel smile as he thwacked his victim again and again. Joey raised his arms to protect himself.
It was a miracle. The beating stopped. Brad let out a shriek and ran away. Joey realised someone was standing behind him. Crazy Eye had grabbed the stick from Brad and snapped it. She helped Joey up. They walked to another part of the woods. Crazy Eye had her own cabin. She cleaned up Joey’s bloodied lip and gave him a glass of homemade lemonade.
“Miss Jefferies, please don’t tell my parents I was beat up. I’ll say I was fooling about up a tree and fell.”
“I understand. We will make a deal.”
“Will you stop calling me Crazy Eye?”
Joey blushed. They shook hands like two grown ups.
“When I was a teenager, Joey, I was attacked by a bully with a stick. That is why my eye is the way it is. Someone found me crying in the woods that day and I made him promise not to tell anyone what happened. I told my parents I fell out of a tree too.”
They walked back to the lake in silence. Jeb had finished fishing for the day and was carrying his rod and cooler when he spotted them. His eyes narrowed when he saw Joey’s lip. Miss Jefferies told Jeb that Joey had fallen out of a tree just like she did all those years ago.
Joey’s ma scolded and fussed over Joey in equal measure. Before he went to bed, Joey happened to look out of the window and saw Miss Jefferies talking with Jeb.
Three days later, a deputy knocked on the cabin door. He was speaking with Joey’s parents. Joey opened the door of his room so he could eavesdrop. Something had happened to Brad Dubicheck! The deputy asked Joey if he had seen any strangers hanging around. Joey clammed up. He couldn’t betray Miss Jefferies after she had helped him. He wrestled with his knowledge. It was like his insides had a hook caught up in them. What should he do? He didn’t eat much dinner. Miss Jeffries had been so nice to him. Had she done something to Brad? He was scared. He had been sleeping with his window ajar during the night, now he locked it up and rattled the window frame to make sure it was secure. His ma and pa attempted to reassure him he was safe. Except they also told him not to go anywhere by himself.
The next day Joey confided in Jeb.
“If someone did something bad, should I tell?”
Jeb patted Joey on the back.
“Kid, you’re at that age where everything is changing, nothing can ever be the same again. Do what you think is right. Have a swig of my rye, don’t tell your ma!”
The drink tasted foul and made Joey’s throat sting. After Joey stopped coughing, Jeb asked him to help bait his hooks. They caught three fish and one was wrapped up for Joey. The sun was beginning to dip into the lake when a voice called out.
“Jeb, let the kid come over to us!”
Jeb and Joey looked over their shoulders. The Sheriff and a Deputy both had their guns drawn. Joey could see his parents being held back by two other deputies. What was happening?
“Best take your fish and be with your pa and ma.”
Joey’s heart was thumping. They had the wrong person. Tears welled up in his eyes. Why was Jeb getting the blame?
“I won’t leave you. I know who they should be arresting, I can tell them!”
Jeb gave Joey a gentle squeeze on the shoulder. And spoke in a clear voice.
“One thing that always burns me up are bullies. Can’t stand ’em. Some people are borne mean nasty varmints. Others are good decent people. Take Eileen Jefferies. Almost lost an eye. Attacked by Mike Dubicheck, a wild dangerous boy. Why? Because she was the smart girl in class. Eileen believed in giving people a second chance because everyone makes mistakes. Don’t see how almost taking someone’s eye out is a mistake but I promised to button my lip. Turns out Mike Dubicheck’s second chance ended up with a DUI, he crippled a girl, did some time in the can. When he came back he was worse than ever. Married a girl, had a kid and whupped them both whenever he felt like it. By then Eileen was a teacher at your school. I saw him harassing her in town, calling her a freak on account of her eye. A fever took a hold of me. I followed him about as he got thrown out of bar after bar. I rolled my window down, told him I was heading up to the lake and had beers in the truck. He didn’t remember me being the guy who chased him off all those years ago. He was as drunk as a skunk when I parked up on his side of the lake. I hit him in the head with a rock and dragged him to the edge of the lake. I held his head underwater until he stopped kicking. I let him float away. The investigation recorded it as an accidental death.”
Joey couldn’t believe his ears.
“I have carried that murder around with me for years, it wears a man down. I sit here by the lake and every day I reminded of what I did. I was no better than Mike. Maybe how Brad turned out was my fault given I killed his pa. Anyways, I thought if I spoke to Brad’s ma, she could rein him in. She was a real hostile woman, started waving a hunting rifle about and things went wrong. She took a tumble and her neck gave out. Same time, the rifle went off, drilled a hole clean through Brad’s head. I won’t be around here no more. I’ll miss you. Run along now, son.”
Joey’s world was upside down. He walked towards the Sheriff and Deputy who were beckoning to him. Once he passed them, they charged towards Jeb. The bottle of rye next to him was knocked over as they tightened the handcuffs around his wrists.
That was the last family holiday by the lake. Pa Stevens sold the cabin. He didn’t want to but Ma Stevens was insistent.
When the holidays were over, it was back to school. Joey was going steady with Casey-Anne. Joey had an untouchable status in school now. He had stood up to Brad Dubicheck and that same summer Brad was chopped up by a psycho killer who happened to be Joey’s pal. Joey had tried to explain there was no chopping, no one cared. Brad’s death became school legend. When the Sheriff opened the cooler, instead of fish he found Brad’s severed head and puked all over it.
Miss Eileen Jefferies was walking down the corridor, Joey was by his locker, he smiled at her, she smiled back. Joey had never noticed what a pretty smile she had.