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I contributed a short story to a book collection title First Light. That story is below.
The Doomed Life of Billy Cavanaugh
Billy Cavanaugh knew the Kodiak bear that faced him a mere six feet away was how he was going to die. It stood nine feet tall on its hind legs, its huge claws raised like a hairy percussionist ready to crush out his life between two, enormous meat cymbals. Retreating was impossible. His kid brother Dougie was clinging to him, plastered to his back, thrashing and muttering incoherently like an entranced voodoo dancer. No, this was the end. Might as well face up to it, this would be his last summer. He was never going to see his dog Foot-Foot again, and that bear was going to eat every morsel of him. There wouldn’t even be a pinky bone left to bury. Billy also knew he was never going to see thirteen, or that cute Darlene Bateman in eighth grade homeroom.
“You fellas are going to miss feeding the sea lions at the next exhibit if you don’t hurry,” the zoo guide said.
“Okay,” Billy said and piggy-backed Dougie out of the bear diorama.
Minutes later the two brothers were tossing sardines to the sea lions in the water arena. Billy knew that as soon as he ran out of sardines the huge male, who was eyeing him, would dive across the retainer wall and start gnawing on his throat with those three-inch fangs. He doled out the last of the sardines frugally, then slinked his way toward the concession stand. Once there, he could get more stuff to feed the big bruiser, or hide in a Port-A-Potty and wait him out.
Sidling away from the arena by shifting his feet from side to side brought him abruptly against a woman holding a canvas souvenir bag and a cup of lemonade.
“Where do you think you’re going, young man?” she said.
“Oh, hi, mom,” Billy said, “Just thought I’d head over to the snack bar. Could use a stiff drink.”
“Want a sip of my stiff lemonade?” his mother asked.
“Mom, please. I’m twelve. Don’t embarrass me.”
“It’s a sip of lemonade. It’s not like I’m going to breast feed you.”
Billy needed to make a decision: Stay for more family humiliation or bolt for the concession stand and take his chances with the earless carnivore.
At the soda stand he looked back at the water arena. He’d lucked out. The big sea lion had decided to mooch sardines off a fat guy in the crowd who had bought three buckets of the feed fish. Billy felt like he’d dodged a slick, 800-pound, furry torpedo.
While Billy waited for his root beer, he remembered that things always came in threes for some strange reason, like the Three Musketeers, the Three Stooges, and triple dog dares. Not always good things either. He wondered where the next menace in this unstoppable cycle would pop up to snuff out his life.
Billy caught a glimpse of the man making his root beer put something weird in his drink. Was he trying to poison him? Billy paid the man, took his soda, and carefully examined the contents of the quart-size, Super Swig cup. Suspicions confirmed. There was a curious slice of lemon floating atop the crushed ice. What? Did the dolt think he’d ordered iced tea? Who puts lemon in root beer? Well, it wasn’t cyanide, but that just meant that the third evil in the “curse of threes” was still waiting in the wings for him, like that Mr. Death guy in the Final Destination movies.
Late that night, Billy lay in his twin bed across the room from Dougie who slept peacefully, oblivious of the dangers in the room as he soaked his Star Trek pillow with a steady ooze of drool. Mr. Spock’s pointy left ear was getting the worst of it. At that very moment, he spotted a spider web in the corner of the ceiling above his bed. He knew it was filled with peril. The black widow that lived there could tiptoe down the wall behind his headboard and bite him right on his neck for maximum effect. Then she’d carry over her young to feast on his tender, pre-teen, paralyzed flesh.
Then there was that 8-foot, black cobra that was lying coiled up just under his bed, waiting for the perfect moment to slither up the mattress and fang-dangle him on his exposed leg. Billy had read in school that cobras were the slowest striking of all the known poisonous snakes, but he’d also read that they were still way faster than 20,000 Polynesian natives last year.
Sleep finally arrived, but Billy’s dreams were filled with macabre scenes that Louis Carroll never thought of for Alice and the dangers lurking in that rabbit hole.
The next morning, Billy’s mother informed him that she had arranged for him to take some aptitude tests being offered at his middle school. Doesn’t she know it’s summer? You don’t send a kid to school in summer. It was like going to the chair in those old gangster movies. Or worse, like in The Green Mile where that guy with the trained mouse was strapped in and got zapped with about a scazillion volts without his head sponge getting properly water-soaked. The man actually caught on fire in the scene, and with it, the horrific images Billy witnessed were indelibly burned into his brain.
He always felt sorry for kids who had to take remedial classes in summer school, and equated it with being sent to one of those French penal colonies like he’d seen in Papillion.
“It’ll help us decide which colleges will be best for you when you graduate,” Billy’s mother said.
“Mom, college is a hundred years away. I’m twelve.”
“You’ll be eighteen before you know it. So get dressed. We have to be there in an hour.”
Wait a minute, Billy thought. The test’s at school…in the summer, no less. That’s it. That’s the third evil thing. And boy, it’s right up there with a visit from Mr. Death.
After the tests, Mrs. Cavanaugh sat down in a closed office with the test proctors and the psychologists who specialized in evaluating occupational aptitude test results. Billy sat outside out of earshot, but he knew what was going on in there. They were scrutinizing his report cards and his just-barely-okay grades, but it was those teacher comments that were going to sink him. Things like, “He daydreams a lot and stares out the window when he should be paying attention,” or “He doesn’t follow directions,” or, his personal favorite, “He seems to live in a world of his own.”
Billy knew those tests would never reveal that he’d be an excellent scuba diver for Spanish treasures off the coast of Florida, or that he would make a super NASCAR driver, certain to win the Daytona 500 in record time. Those tests would come back showing what a terrific used car salesman he’d make or, worse, a plumber. He also knew those tests were loaded with trick questions that you had to be on guard for, like that one about the sunrise. “The sun rises in the: a) north, b) east, c) south, d) west (circle one).” All the time he knew they were messing with him, so he wrote in the correct answer: morning.
The door of the office opened and out walked the test sadists and his mother. His mom approached looking like the veterinarian who is about to tell you your guppy didn’t make it. She handed Billy a piece of paper and puckered a tiny, hurt-looking smile.
Billy read the paper and almost fell out of his chair. It was worse than he ever imagined. It would mean living in torment for the rest of his days. He was doomed. Please make sure my head sponge is really, really wet.
The paper said that he was most suited to be a fiction writer.