In the Beginning
THERE WAS THIS KID I USED TO KNOW WHO ALWAYS sat in class with his head propped up in one hand. He always looked tired or mad about something, or sometimes just sad.
His name was Jamie Marks. But everyone called him Moony.
I'm not sure when or where or why he got the name, but I think it had something to do with him being fifteen years old and still a Boy Scout. It wasn't a good nickname or anything, and I sometimes wondered why, when guys in the eleventh and twelfth grades would sometimes shout in the hallways, "Hey, Moony! Moony Marks!" and laugh like idiots, Jamie didn't do anything to stop them. He'd just pretend like he hadn't heard. Sometimes there'd be a scuffle. One of the jerks wouldn't be satisfied with his silence, so they'd push him into a locker and say stupid shit like, "Speak when you're spoken to, Moony!" But he must have been a Boy Scout through and through, because he never did anything in retaliation. He just slid further down into the bottom of his existence, far away where they couldn't reach him.
When we were freshmen we started sitting next to each other in our computer classes. I didn't understand computers much beyond playing games on them, so he sometimes helped me. I never asked. Whenever he saw me stuck, he'd just offer his services. His voice was soft, not hard like I'd imagined it would be after everything. He was a good kid, really. I wished I knew how to be friends with him.
That summer I turned fifteen, and when fall came around again, I was put on the varsity cross-country team. I was a good runner. I did a mile in under four and a half minutes. My mother always called me her bolt of lightning. Then she'd tell the same old story again, the one about how I was born after forty hours of labor and how my lungs were undersized and there was a murmur in my heart. "The doctors didn't think you'd live," she'd tell me, or whoever happened to be around to listen. "But you were a fighter, my brave boy. You always fought to live."
I suppose I should probably say a word or two about my mother and the rest of my family.
We live in a white, one-story ranch house on a back road of a small town in Ohio. My father built the house right after he and my mom married, with some help from a few of his friends. He was a construction worker, proud of the buildings his hands brought into existence. When we drove around the countryside or through one of the nearby towns, he'd point out places he'd had a hand in making. He'd say things like, "Did the closets in that one," and would point out my window, his finger drifting in front of my face. I never knew what he was trying to tell me, so I'd just nod, considering the fine black hairs that curled along his arm. It didn't matter how I responded. Most of the time, my dad never had much to say.
My mom, on the other hand, is a talker. She could outtalk anyone, except maybe my grandma.
Mostly she has a good bit of advice or a word of encouragement for everyone. Usually she's in good spirits, unless she and my dad have fought, and when that happens she can be black for days and everyone knows to stay away. I remember in one of her worst moments she stopped me on my way to my room and said, "Don't ever put your happiness in someone else's hands. They'll drop it. They'll drop it every time." She'll always come around eventually, her smile settled back on her face like an advertisement for happiness, but I never believed in that smile except when I was a little kid and didn't know better. I learned early that smiles lie.
Along with my parents is my brother, Andy. He's two years older than me. He was a senior when I started running on the varsity track team. Sometimes teachers called me his name and, after realizing their mistake, said, "I'm sorry. Adam. Adam McCormick. Let's hope you're a bit more serious than your brother."
I'm a bit more serious, I guess. All of my teachers realized that quickly. Soon after their initial worry over me being like Andy, who was known for being a part of what you might call the burnout heavy metal crowd that cut class and always smelled like pot, they started making remarks on essays I wrote or on tests I'd taken that said, "Very good, Adam! You're on the right track! Keep it up!"
This was before all of the bad stuff started to happen. Or I should say this was before all of the bad stuff started to happen that had been coming into existence for years beforehand. It's just that none of us recognized it at first. Or I should say it's just that none of us recognized it except my grandma, who died in the spring when I was still fourteen and a freshman in high school. She'd come to live with us after my grandpa died of lung cancer and she'd been with us for a year when I went into her bedroom one morning to wake her for breakfast and found her dead.
Before she died, we'd gotten used to my grandma predicting a great misfortune coming. She always had odd sayings and rhymes to explain anything out of the ordinary. My parents said she was from the old country and never gave up that kind of thinking, but I always thought what she said made a sort of sense. And what she'd been saying for several months before she died was, "God's finger is coming. I see it in the sky. If you people aren't careful, he's going to pick you out for sadness."
To me she said, "If you see his finger coming, boy, run. Run as fast and as far away as you can. Understand?"
I nodded and she smiled, the wrinkles in her face folding. She patted my hand. The skin on her palms was soft and felt like it would slide right off her bones. I sat on the edge of her bed and said, "I'll run as fast and as far away as possible. I'll keep my eyes out for God's finger. I promise."
But I guess I wasn't paying enough attention. Maybe it was because my grandma had been gone half a year by the time the signs began appearing, and by then I'd forgotten. "Bad things come in threes," she always said. But I understand now that sometimes you don't recognize a string of bad things until they're right on top of you.
The first bad thing that happened was that Jamie Marks disappeared in late September. One day he sat next to me in the computer lab, and the next day his seat was empty.
The last time I saw him, I was running home from cross-country practice. The Marks house was on my way back. It sat down from the road in a hollow, gray and ashy, surrounded by maple trees and weeping willows. Red and orange leaves littered the front yard, and a small gray shed stood off to the side of the house with the nose of a tractor poking out. Four dog coops sat in the yard, one at each corner: two under the trees near the road, two under the trees near the house, and the dogs themselves ran back and forth on chains tied to the trees, patrolling. A long drive curled down the hill from the road, back to the shed. The drive was really just tire ruts from where Mr. Marks drove an eighteen-wheeler up and down the lawn from the road. He drove for a company in Youngstown, an hour away from here, and hardly anyone in town ever saw him.
Whenever I ran past the Marks house, I couldn't help but look at the window over the kitchen to see if Jamie was there. I'd seen him there the previous spring on a day soon after my grandma died, watching me run. So after that, whenever I ran past, I'd look to see if he was watching.
The dogs barked angrily as I passed, but Jamie wasn't in the window on the last day I saw him. He came walking up the rutted drive in his Boy Scout uniform to get the mail instead. I waved and he waved back like we were friends, and I guess we were sort of, but not really. Not yet. I thought about asking why he was a Boy Scout, but I kept running instead. Then he suddenly shouted, "Looking good, McCormick!" and stopped me in my tracks.
I kept lifting my knees up, going nowhere, while he came to the mailbox, flipped the lid up and pulled out the usual stack of grocery store coupons and Have You Seen Me? postcards with pictures of missing kids on them. He looked up then and--I'll always remember this--said, "Nothing ever comes that's worth anything anyway."
He said this as if he'd been expecting better, as if something that would change the world as soon as he opened the envelope was supposed to arrive that day. I didn't say anything. I was satisfied watching him sort mail. Looking at his uniform and the round glasses sliding down his nose, I wondered if maybe the glasses didn't have something to do with his nickname. I never did ask, though. Sometimes you regret things like that. Sometimes you regret not asking simple questions.
The uniform looked strange on him, but maybe only because I'd never joined the Boy Scouts. I tried picturing him wearing my clothes instead, but when I opened my mouth I said, "That's a cool uniform."
He was as surprised by the compliment as I was, but he managed to say thanks, even though it was obvious he didn't believe me.
He asked what I thought about the program we learned in computer lab that day and I said, "It's okay, but I wouldn't have understood without your help." He shrugged like it was just this thing he did without any trouble and I suddenly found myself asking if he was going to the Homecoming dance in October.
"No way," he said. "That's for cheerleaders and jocks." As soon as he said it, he looked down at his feet to hide his embarrassment, but I could still see him grinning. "Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean you."
I shrugged like he'd shrugged off my compliment and told him not to include me with the rest of them. "I run," I said. "But I run for myself."
"I can respect that," said Jamie. Then he looked up and down the road as if he expected someone, and the last thing he said before he took the mail in was "I have to go to a Boy Scout meeting in a while, but give me a call sometime."
The next day his seat was empty, and two days later the whole town started looking for him. I joined in on the search, hoping I'd find him somewhere safe and sound, just hiding maybe, for whatever reason, but it was Gracie Highsmith, a girl in my class, who found his body two weeks later.
It was on that day, the day Gracie Highsmith found Jamie's body, that God's finger descended on my family. It was October. The reaping season, my grandma called it. For days the sky was black with storms, but no rain had fallen.
When I look back now, I don't know why I hadn't seen it coming. I saw things the same way as my grandma, and having that should have been enough to know what was coming. I could count crows, I knew the difference between dreaming and seeing the future, and I always took a different route than the one I'd been on if for some reason I had to turn around and go home. I knew that when a sparrow sang, a spirit was coming down from heaven. And I knew that ghosts always surround us, whether we're able to see them or not. "Don't talk to them too much," my grandma always warned me. "They can be nice, but in the end they're always jealous creatures."
So when all of this started--when my family was picked for sadness--I was sitting in my bedroom, playing a video game called Nevermorrow. I played a character who was a knight with a sword and shield. He was trapped in the nine layers of hell and had to kill all sorts of undead monsters to find his way out to the land of the living. While I hacked skeletons to pieces, my parents were out in the living room, yelling at each other.
It didn't really mean anything to me then--my parents had been fighting about one thing or another since I could remember. Usually it was about money or who did more or who was smarter. Sometimes my dad would lose his job and when that happened my mom and he would scream their fool heads off. His excuse was that construction work was seasonal, but there were other men my mother could name without pausing who never got laid off.
My dad was a drinking man, and sometimes my mom was a drinker too. Usually my dad drank when he lost work, then he and my mom would fight, and then she'd start drinking and they'd fight even worse. They'd eventually give up after a while, and things would return to normal, or as close to normal as we could get. My brother and I never got into the arguments. We figured it was grown-up stuff and that it'd all be fine in the end. But that day, my father told my mother she was a waste. And that's when the second bad thing began to come into being.
My dad said, "You are such a waste, Linda."
And my mom said, "Oh yeah? You think so? Well, we'll just see about that."
Then she got into her car and pulled out of our driveway, throwing gravel in every direction as she pushed down on the gas. She was going to Abel's, or so she said, where she would have a beer and find herself a real man.
When I look back on it now, I can see the holes they were making. I can see how, with each nasty thing they said, they were attracting misfortune, making doorways for darkness to come into our lives. So when the second bad thing arrived, it shouldn't have been a surprise, but at the time I didn't understand how it could have happened.
Excerpted from One For Sorrow by Christopher Barzak. Copyright © 2007 by Christopher Barzak. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.