The Devil Made Me
By: Shawn Klimek

Under other circumstances, Morton Ambrose and Jayden Pinkerton might have been friends. They had much in common: both were shy loners who came from poor families, reflected in their tendency to arrive at school dirty, hungry, and wearing tattered, ill-fitting clothing; and finally, both had reached puberty early.

In Jayden's case, the gush of hormones had meant an eruption of red pimples on his thin nose and shallow forehead, drawing humiliating attention to his bad haircut and rarely washed face. Unfortunately, none of this was mitigated by large eyes or straight, white teeth. If anything, his sudden extra inch of height made him a bigger target for bullies, eager to prove their toughness by making a larger boy shrink.

Morton escaped similar abuse by being short, like a hobbit, yet less interesting to look at. In his case, puberty seemed to have awoken dangerous dreams and a hyperconsciousness of the suffering of others. Although every hellish day drove Jayden deeper into his despairing shell, that very suffering propelled Morton into a deeper awareness of his classmate's pain. Sometimes, he even awoke weirdly feeling he'd remembered Jayden's nightmares. As the months passed, Morton's empathy progressed until he could hear his classmate's tortured thoughts like whispers in his head. Telepathy! Besides the disquieting nature of those thoughts, he found the accidental intimacy disturbing. Through experimentation, Morton discovered that, with sufficient concentration, he could penetrate almost anyone's inner thoughts. But such efforts shamed him, and so he resolved to avoid the practice, unless there was good cause. With no effort on his own part however, Jayden's thoughts continued to barge in on his own, like overloud music coming from another room. Or had Jayden's concerns simply become a subconscious obsession? Like a child crying in distress, some things cannot be tuned out.

The pair of loners shared many of the same classes across multiple classrooms. Wherever possible, Jayden sat near the back of the class, or in front of an empty desk. From such positions, it was more difficult to have his ears flicked, or to be struck by spit wads. In his English class, where students were required to sit alphabetically by last name—this positioned Morton Ambrose at the front of the class near the doorway and Jayden Pinkerton like a sitting duck near the room's center. At the room's opposite corner, behind Jayden and to his left, were the Wyatt twins, Scott and Sonya. Sonya was the gentle and sweet-natured twin, while her brother was Jayden's chief antagonist. If the rumors about their father, Mr. Wyatt, were true —that he was a cruel man who beat his children regularly—Morton's heightened empathy had failed to detect it.

Despite having only a peripheral view of his persecuted peer, Morton felt some of Jayden's most acute suffering during this class. The English teacher, Mrs. Poole faced the whiteboard for long stretches, proudly demonstrating her elegant penmanship as she diagrammed sentences and paragraphs in dry erase marker. It was during these intervals, when her back was turned that Jayden's books would be knocked to the floor or objects—spit wads, pencil nubs and even tossed gum—would strike him in the head. Adding insult to injury, whenever a suspicious noise made Mrs. Poole whip around in time to catch the action, her focus invariably zeroed in on Jayden dodging a blow or reacting to one, and her conclusions were prejudicial and unfair. Her reliable outrage, somehow funny to the rest of the class, was deserved in only one detail: she correctly interpreted his disappointed scowls as disrespectful.

P.E. was another class-period during which Jayden suffered bullying, both physical and psychological. In the boys' locker room, his spotty skin and prematurely hairy parts drew ridicule more stinging than the snapping towels. In mere months, puberty would begin affecting the other boys, but it was inconceivable that the bullied pre-teen's silently boiling rage could remain contained so long. Every day, Jayden went home in a funk of angry misery, swearing that tomorrow he might finally snap. Then one day, something changed in his home life that gave him a clear idea, for the first time, how to finally end it all.

That plan had occurred to Jayden mere minutes after meeting his mother's latest sleep-over boyfriend, "Bro-Ice" (real name, "Bryce") slouching on the living room couch with a beer in his hand and a gun strapped to his chest.

"What's up, little man?" condescended the stranger.

"Whatever," Jayden mumbled. He wanted to go lie down and reread his comic book.

"You will show Bro-Ice proper respect!" his mother had scolded. Newly spotting the gun, Jayden had mousily complied, gladly fetching beers all evening with a devious flicker of hope behind his eyes that this latest fool would stay over often, until one day getting drunk enough to leave that gun unattended.

Meanwhile, much like Jayden's lanky skeleton and ravaged complexion, Morton's psychic skills continued to expand and mature. On the morning Jayden's dark hope came true, Morton easily read his mind and foresaw how the terrible day was doomed to end in gunfire, blood, and grief unless he somehow intervened.

And then one day, after weeks of wishing that objects thrown at Jayden's head during English class would miss, Morton visualized a phantom hand deflecting the projectiles. To his amazement, the objects began to miss. Coincidence or telekinesis? Guardedly hopeful, Morton began to experiment. An untouched pencil nub on the floor could be made to roll, as if affected by a breeze. Mrs. Poole's chalk could be made to snap in her hand whenever she attempted punctuation. Morton felt an emotional burden lifting. At last, he could do something!

Morton found plenty of opportunities to develop his nascent skill in the boy's locker room during P.E. class. He found he could make snapping towels almost always miss, or, at worst, slap without a sting. The welts and bruises on Jayden's naked thighs became milder and less frequent. Of course, telekinesis had little effect against hurtful words. Morton pondered, but hadn't yet figured out how to make Jayden's abusers bungle their consonants or gag on their tongues.

Then suddenly, it was too late. Morton woke with a terrible premonition and little confidence that he could help. Except for working invisibly and at a distance, his telekinetic "phantom hand" had accomplished little more than might have been achieved using his own pinkie. Pushing a pencil or deflecting a towel required little force. Stopping a bullet was far beyond his abilities.

When he sensed Jayden waking early that morning, Morton also woke. His heart pounded alongside that of his classmate when Jayden sneaked into his mother's bedroom to find "Bro-Ice" supine with an arm across his face and snoring like an outboard motor. The same adrenaline rush thrilled both boys as Jayden lifted the pistol gingerly off the nightstand. Both boys left their respective houses in unison, and Morton deliberately matched his peer's stride, to minimize distractions that might interfere with his telepathy. Jayden's thoughts alarmed him. As he fast-walked the shortest path to school—through unfenced yards and side alleys—Jayden obsessively visualized the weapon in his backpack and how he planned to use it. The gun magazine carried fifteen rounds. If he aimed carefully, he could take out his most hated targets. To Morton's horror, Jayden began to visualize his antagonists, mentally prioritizing.

In his premonition, Morton watched Jayden squeeze the same trigger finger over and over. Scott Wyatt would die first. One brass casing after another would tumble out of the automatic weapon, as terrified students ducked, fled, or fell as they were struck. Mrs. Poole would hide behind her desk, but Jayden would follow, seeking her out particularly. A flesh-wound would have mollified him, but he would find the gun chamber finally empty. Jayden would then reach into his pants pocket to retrieve the final bullet he had reserved for himself. Seeing an opportunity, Mrs. Poole would bravely lunge for him, knocking him down. Others nearby would join her to restrain Jayden. Their actions too late, the final bullet would already have been reloaded. Out of spite, he would aim it at Mrs. Poole's head, and fire.

Interfering with that trigger finger might be his best chance, Morton decided. Even a phantom pinkie could probably manage that.

Morton's route being shorter, he arrived first. By then, he'd heard Jayden's rage speak in the bark of the pistol, seen hated faces contorted in shock and blood gout like vomit from vengeful wounds and fall like red rain in Jayden's mind.

By this point in real time, Jayden had arrived at the school boundary, where the parking lot met the sports field. Both Jayden and Morton were startled out of their collective reverie as each spotted the other across yards of well-trampled grass. Jayden immediately looked away and made a beeline for the gymnasium. Morton sensed instantly where his tortured classmate was planning to hide the gun.

It dawned on Morton that simply stealing the gun might prove his easiest, least-confrontational solution. Without needing to enter the gymnasium himself, he watched remotely as Jayden manipulated the combination lock on his gym locker opened it, and then stashed the weapon.

Memorizing the sequence required Morton to relax his focus on Jayden's thoughts, but since Jayden no longer held the gun, only peripheral attention was necessary. Mentally rehearsing the lock's combination, Morton tracked Jayden as the disturbed teen left the gymnasium to attend his morning math class.

Morton decided he would have to be late, for once. He slipped inside the gymnasium and headed for the locker room just as the morning bell rang.

A group of high school girls wearing shorts and carrying pom poms began streaming into the gymnasium from the inner hallway, to hold a cheerleading practice. These were all pretty girls, older, with no straight lines, and Morton's profound shyness suddenly muddled his concentration. Blushing, nervous almost to the point of tunnel vision, he scurried past them, dodging their discarded papers, pom poms and personal belongings. Apart from rare, furtive glimpses, he had never explored the thoughts of a pretty girl. The idea terrified him. He was far too timid to attempt something so naughty, besides which he feared direct confirmation of their contempt for such a puny loser.

Reaching the boys' locker room entrance, Morton ducked inside, breathing heavily. The subject of pretty girls made him think wistfully of Sonya Wyatt. He was far too shy to ever meet her gaze, yet unavoidably glimpsed her from time to time, and admired her beauty, poise, and sweet voice. Though she was innocent, her brother, Scott Wyatt was among Jayden's tormentors, and a ricocheted bullet intended for her brother, this afternoon, was going to wound her, too, unless he interfered.

The voices of two adult men entered the locker room: Coaches Dixon and Felter. Moving slowly and silently, Morton retreated, keeping a bank of lockers always between them. As they passed the gymnasium entrance, Dixon said something shockingly inappropriate about a particularly busty cheerleader and Felter laughed. Morton swallowed uncomfortably. There was more laughter, and then the adult voices faded, exiting the room. From the gymnasium, he could hear the girls chanting and clapping. Feeling safe at last, he made his way to the locker and stared at the lock. Unfortunately, the recent distractions had wiped the combination from his memory.

Closing his eyes, Morton strained to reconnect with Jayden's thoughts. Before long, he was looking out through the disturbed boy's eyes, seeing what Jayden was seeing. This was math class, Jayden's favorite because his desk was near the back. Mrs. Vermont stood at the whiteboard, writing out a problem. From this vantage, Jayden glared menacingly at the back of two of his tormentors' heads, fixing them with imaginary crosshairs. Someone nearby addressed him, disturbing his dour reverie: Sonya Wyatt. He glared at her with hatred. She was Scott's sister. Complicit. She had never scolded her twin, nor tattled on him, nor admitted his cruelty.

Now, she was doing the unthinkable, touching Jayden's arm, whispering, "I just wanted to apologize for my brother. He can be such a pest."

A pest? Not a prick?

The rage boiling inside of Jayden almost exploded then. She was shielding him. The goosebumps on his arm, initially excited by her gentle touch, now burned like acid. "Maybe a bullet for you, too, bitch," he thought grimly before turning away.

"No!" Morton telepathically exclaimed.

"Noac?" Jayden answered aloud.

Jayden looked around for the person who had spoken to him. Confused but defiant, he ended up squinting resentfully at Sonya.

At the noise, Scott Wyatt turned around in his seat to face him, a sneer on his lips.

Mrs. Vermont, also disturbed, turned to address him from the front of the room. "Did you have something to share with the class, Mr. Pinkerton?"

—End of Part One—


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