Aphelion Issue 293, Volume 28
September 2023
 
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It Wasn't My Idea

by David J. Gibbs




It wasn't my idea. As much as it sounds like something I would've done, it's not. Sometimes I think there are too many things going on inside my head for me to make sense of all of it at one time. It's like looking at the sun for too long. It creates those little black blind spots that you have to blink away. That's what it's like in my head sometimes.

Sure, I was always the kid in trouble while in school. Neal Winters, that's me. I was the one that was the easy scapegoat, always. When things would go sideways, they would always call my house. I stopped counting the number of times the cops pulled up outside of the house and talked with my parents. Mom and dad stopped even bothering to ask when the knock on the door came. It's like they just knew, even without really knowing, if that makes sense, like they were in on it the whole time.

I'm not stupid. I don't think they were really in on it, but that's how it looked. Things are always clearer to me after they've happened and I've had a chance to look back on them and think about it. Sometimes, things can get pretty blurry for me while they are happening.

But that's getting ahead of things a little bit.


* * *

It's hard to really know when things started to go wrong, because honestly they are usually going that way all the time for me anyway, but I guess it's when I was hiding out in the woods, avoiding cross country practice. I didn't even want to join the team, but my mom had dumped me off at practice and announced that I had joined cross-country. I hated running. More than that, I hated wearing the far too revealing uniform that the school had given me.

The ridiculous part is that had my mom told the school that she was preparing to dump me off to run, they would've had a uniform available for me, but instead, since she had waited to spring it on me, I had to wear the old uniforms that they hadn't used in over ten years.

I looked stupid.

I looked really fat.

I also looked really slow, mostly because I was slow. I was the last kid to cross the finish line every single race. Sure, I improved my time, but considering that I was being beaten by girls that started their race after I started mine, it was more than a little disheartening. It didn't matter how much my teammates or family cheered me on, I just couldn't do it.

Partly because of that, and partly because I was honestly just pretty lazy, I would ditch practice and roam the woods around the wooded park that the cross-country team used for practices. There were trails meandering through the park I would explore while the team was running. It was a beautiful plan. All I had to do was to make sure that I was up near the picnic shelter by the time my mom came to pick me up and no one would be the wiser.

It had worked for almost three weeks.

It was a good plan and a simple one too.

At least it was until Billy Madden showed up, then it all twisted off the tracks. I should've never talked with him the day I ran into him in the woods, but he's very persuasive and so cool.

He was one of those kids that just oozed cool just by leaning up against his locker. All the girls would come by and wave and smile and want to talk to him after school and he would just flip his hair out of his eyes and ignore them. He even had red hair. Like I said, he was very cool.

He surprised me when I was pretending to sword fight with a poor bent over tree. I had beaten the thing down pretty badly with the thick, broken branch I found, and I was thrusting full on with my deathblow when his voice made me yell out in surprise.

"Oh I think you really got him with that one there buddy. There's no coming back from that one."

I was so mortified that anyone had seen me sword fighting, that I simply froze. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to say. In my head, I was already envisioning the next day at school where everyone would greet me with laughter as kids feigned swordplay back and forth. I would never be able to live that down and Billy knew it. I was at his mercy.

"Aren't you gonna say anything?"

I just shook my head, hoping he would move on to other things and just leave me be. It didn't happen.

"Look, just leave me alone Billy."

"Oh come on now Neal, what's wrong? You're not actually going to cry are you? I liked the little sword fighting thing you had going there. You had great form."

"Shut up," I muttered and threw my stick sword into the tangle of woods behind me.

"So what are you doing down here exactly?"

"Nothing. I was just taking a break from cross country."

Billy laughed at that comment and said, "Really? Taking a break? I don't think they do that in cross-country dude. I think they pretty much run a zillion miles every day. I've seen them practicing here and I've never seen them come down to the woods on a break. No, I think you're skipping out on practice."

I shook my head and said, "No I'm not."

"Liar."

"I'm not lying."

"Sure you are. It's all right man. It's not like I'm going to turn you in or anything. What the hell would I gain from that?"

I thought about what he had said and like an idiot, I believed him. Maybe it was the fact that he wasn't chasing me with a stick like he had last summer every time I showed up at the pickup baseball games, or maybe it was something else, but I didn't head back to practice.

I also didn't realize that someone else was there. It was J.D. Riggs, another cool kid. He played guitar with his band and they practiced all the time in his garage. They always played with the door up and it was pretty awesome seeing them in there jamming. My left eye twitched slightly, as the familiar black patches started to cut across my vision and I lost my train of thought. They did that when I was scared or upset.

"So what's this dude's malfunction?" asked Riggs.

"He's cutting practice."

"Shut up. Really?" Riggs asked.

"I'm serious."

"Guys, I'm not skipping practice. I was just taking a break."

"A break for what?" asked Riggs.

"It's cross country."

"Dude, those guys never take a break."

"That's what I said!" exclaimed Billy. "They run like a zillion miles without stopping."

"We take breaks," I tried, pushing my hair out of my eyes before crossing my arms.

"No man. No way. Cross country doesn't."

"But you do," said Riggs and poked me in the middle of my chest.

I could hear the voices of the some of the other runners coming back to the shelter, having finished their warm up run. I should've stayed up there, instead of taking off trying to get out of running.

"So, what's with ditching practice, porkchop?" Billy asked, his eyes alive with that dangerous light I'd seen before.

"Porkchop?" I asked.

"Yeah. Looks like you're a porker," said Riggs, a snarl twisting the last word viciously.

"And I'm not ditching. I don't ditch practice."

"Then why are you here and all the runners are up there?" asked Billy, striking his cool pose, leaning against the tree.

"I told you already. My group was on a break."

"Ah, no, porkchop. Actually, you told me that you were taking a break, not some group. So I don't think you're lying. I know it."

"Big time," finished Riggs.

"I'm not lying," I tried, but not even I believed it now.

The spots were teasing my vision again and I really just wanted to go back up to the shelter. Even if I was caught by coach, it would be better than being down here with these two.

"Oh, my god, what are you wearing on your feet?"

I cringed at that comment. One other thing I had forgotten to mention was that when my mom signed me up for the team she hadn't considered that I needed decent shoes so my feet wouldn't get road rash from running all those miles. I was wearing the K-mart special shoes, you know the ones that are usually found in the ten dollars and under bins.

"Are those blue light specials?"

"J.D., I think you're right."

"Wow. You must be really, really, fast with those porkchop."

"Stop it," I said quietly.

Like hounds hot on the scent, they continued to press me and corner me.

"Look, Porkchop, have you actually ever won one of these races?"

I didn't answer.

"Didn't think so," Billy said, "So what's the point of you running all these miles. I mean, let's be honest. You're not really built for speed."

"No. Definitely not," chided Riggs, tossing a rock and missing me, but not by much.

"Come on, guys."

"What? This is news to you?" asked Riggs.

I rolled my eyes, edging my way toward the path again. They realized what I was doing and closed down the open path.

"Ah, where do you think you're going?" asked Billy

"I'm just heading back to practice. My break is over. They're going to be looking for me. I need to get back."

Riggs frowned as he nodded his head, thinking for a moment before saying, "I don't hear them calling your name. I mean, I know I turn up my volume way too loud, but I don't think I'm deaf. Do you hear anything, Billy?"

Billy shook his head and took a step toward me saying, "No. Nobody's calling for you but you're right. I think your break is over."

As he and Riggs stepped closer, it happened.

Except, I didn't do anything.


* * *

They've asked question after question and still they don't believe me. They've come from the local police and even an A.T.F. agent. I thought they would be much cooler looking, but those agents had such stupid looking uniforms. It almost looked something I wore a few years ago for Halloween.

"So how did you manage to tip the pop machines over?" asked a young looking officer.

I had no idea what he was talking about, until I remembered the pop machine outside the bathrooms near the shelter. I wondered what that had to do with anything.

"Are those K-Mart shoes?"

I only looked at the two officers making a joke at my expense. I let it go, my head hurt too bad to think of anything to say back to them. Rubbing the back of my head, I looked down at my shoes. My glorious K-Mart running shoes, marred now with ugly brownish stains. I reached for them, puzzled by the stain when one of the officers said quickly, "Don't touch those son. We need those for evidence."

Evidence?

Evidence of what?

I didn't do anything.

"Look, Neal, this will go easier if you just tell us what happened okay?"

This question was posed by one of the officers that I guessed was a detective.

"I don't know what happened," I said and cringed at the pain in my head.

"Who's idea was it?"

I didn't know what he was talking about.

"What?"

"Oh come on now. We know about you, Neal. The school has a notebook full of things you've done. Seems like this was kind of inevitable. Is this something you've been planning for a while? Be straight with us, Neal."

I shook my head and said, "I really don't know what you're talking about. I'm so confused. I just woke up, and you guys were asking me questions. I don't even know what's going on. Is my mom here?"

"Son, your mom isn't going to be able to help you this time," the detective said, his jaw working furiously over the gum in his mouth.

That comment more than any other made me realize that something really bad must've happened. I blinked my eyes a few times and looked toward the picnic shelter. There were other runners looking at me, some gathered in groups, all talking behind hands and with their backs turned toward me. Coach was talking with several of the officers and I suddenly felt a pang of guilt. I didn't enjoy cross-country, but I did think that Mr. Lesarski was pretty cool.

That's when something caught my eye and I looked again. The bathroom building was between the shelter and me and something seemed off about it. It was the wrong shape.

It took me a few minutes staring at it before I realized that the pop machines were knocked over. They were lying face down, the electrical cords stretching taught between them and the outlets on the outer wall of the bathroom building. I could see the broken bits of the pop machine's faces scattered all over the sidewalk in colorful shards. Something about it made me shiver.

My head was humming so badly with pain it was hard to keep my eyes open and hard to listen to the questions that just kept coming over and over.

"So, Neal, how about it?"

"What?" I asked, the sound of my own voice sending slivers of pain just behind my eyes.

"What made you decide that this was a good idea?" asked the detective, peeling rubber gloves off his hands as he approached me.

Another officer came over with a large white bag and began to untie my shoes with some plastic sticks. I frowned, not entirely understanding what was going on, but still somewhat intrigued by all the motion around me.

"I didn't do anything."

"This says otherwise," said the detective, tapping the laptop he held folded closed against his chest.

"What do you mean?"

"Thankfully when the park commission fought to get the pop machines put in here, they had the foresight to add surveillance cameras because they were so worried about vandalism."

He sat next to me on the step of the ambulance and opened the laptop. A few seconds later the screen came alive with the bathroom building in frame. It was oddly black and white and very hard to look at with my headache.

It showed the hill leading up from the woods where I had been hiding out. I could see the brush and small saplings moving side to side, like something was moving through and then realized it was Billy and Riggs. They were running fast, Riggs stumbling as they burst out of the woods. The pair rapidly began making their way up the hillside. They were obviously scared of something, even with the grainy footage anyone could tell that.

They were shouting something.

I tried to remember but couldn't. I remembered wanting to get away from the boys and going back to the shelter.

They were about thirty yards away from the clump of trees when I noticed something else moving through the thick brush. I fully expected myself to burst through the woods and chase them up the hill, a wild half crazed look on my face, but something far stranger happened. Brush wavered and moved as if something was passing through it, but it wasn't me that appeared in the clearing. As a matter of fact, nothing appeared, at least not at first.

The brush parted for something to pass, but I wasn't able to see the cause of it. The grainy video didn't help, the detail all but lost in the constant pixilation of each frame, and so it took me a moment to catch it.

"What is this?" I asked.

"Keep watching," the detective said.

"I don't see anything."

As I finished speaking, I did see something. I watched the grass seem to falter in next frame just a few feet ahead of where the woods began, and then a few feet ahead of that. I realized I was watching footprints moving across the grass, but nothing there to make them.

That's when I broke through the woods and into the grassy hill, except it wasn't me. I knew that it wasn't me. I wasn't there. I mean I wasn't completely there. I know this won't make sense, not even after you watch the news story about it, but what I saw wasn't me. It was just parts of me.

I could see my face flickering as if on a TV with bad reception. Practically my entire right arm reacted the same way, flickering and turning to static, but the oddest thing was my feet and legs.

They were a flurry of bizarrely shaped pixels and smudges. If I wasn't watching the video, I would've said it was some sort of cartoon, the legs moving too fast for the camera to capture or some equipment glitch.

That's when I noticed that I wasn't chasing the two boys. They seemed to be the least of my worries. I realized I was chasing whatever I couldn't see on the video. Closing my eyes, a sharp pain erupted behind my left eye for a moment. I opened them and watched more of the video.

I watched as I slipped and fell hard on the incline of the hill, but the smudges continued trailing after the boys. The pair raced up to the back of the restroom and then around the side. The angle of the video switched to the camera mounted on top of the cinder block building. The two boys raced by and into front entryway of the bathroom. Just as they passed in front of the pop machines, motion blurred the lens, before it was tilted up by something.

"What does this have to do with anything?"

Again, my question was answered by what I saw. It was my face, for less than a single second it flashed in the blur of motion. That same blur that bumped the camera, wedged between the wall and the vending machines and then I watched as they toppled over. You couldn't tell from the frame what happened, but by looking down the sidewalk from where I sat, I knew.

"So what do you have to say?"

"I don't know," I started to say.

"You don't know? Was that or was that not your face?"

I looked at the detective and then back at the screen where he had frozen that single frame of my face mixed with an odd blur, a smudged frame, as if a giant had taken his thumb and smeared it.

"Yes, that's me, but I don't understand."

"I don't either," the detective began, typing a few keystrokes on his keyboard before another image appeared, "because here you are, still on the hillside. We found you just lying there. You never move from this spot. So how did you also appear on top of the restroom building?"


* * *

Workers raised the vending machines up and although I never saw either of the bodies, the newspaper accounts and media retelling of it was enough to live on inside me forever. The weight of the machines had pushed the arms holding the pop and snacks through them in multiple places. They were basically Swiss cheese with red, bloodied sockets where the holes would've been.

Nobody believed me when I said it wasn't me. It wasn't my idea. All they knew was that I was somehow to blame.

The tape never made it into evidence. How could it? They would never be able to explain it. The court knew that it would've been enough to get me off and out of jail and they couldn't have that. They buried it deep enough that no matter how many times I told the shrinks, or my mom, or my lawyer they kept telling me the video doesn't exist and to stop grasping at straws.

That's all I have as I sit here in the cell, my smeared face keeping me company in my memory. That's it. If I think about it too long, my head hurts and I feel my breathing begin to labor. I constantly have to remind myself to calm down and focus so those spots don't take over again.

So far, it's worked, but I don't know for how long.


THE END


2015 David J. Gibbs

Bio: Mr. Gibbs is a Cincinnati native living with a wife and three children near the downtown area.  He was published in Under The Bed and in New Realm. He published two short story collections entitled "A Taste of the Grave," "Once, Twice, Thrice" and also a novel, "The Walking Man."

E-mail: David J. Gibbs

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