Excerpt from "Zozo"
Chris rolled up to the edge of his yard, the yielding plush grass giving beneath the angled wheels of his wheelchair, allowing him a slick sort of purchase. Looking up at his new house, he smiled; it was an old manor near the local university, so that his mother could attend classes for her Biology degree. She hoped for more than being a caretaker for an old rich man’s estate, and Chris knew she had mounting medical bills from his pricey medications and numerous sessions of physical therapy. The donations from church were only so much, and the insurance was only so giving. Soon, he’d break her wallet.
Especially if he couldn’t make anything to help her.
Nodding at one of the big men carrying a large box into the house, Chris rolled back a little, settling his gloved hands in his lap. He’d taken up art in school, where he’d learned he had a surprising amount of talent. Perhaps his mother’s eye for interior design had been passed down? Whatever the case, he’d successfully sold a piece at auction for eight hundred dollars, replacing the transmission in the old van that his mother drove them around in.
She’d been thrilled, and the tired look in her eyes had faded a little after he’d handed her the cash.
He wanted to see that look again.
He needed to paint something new, something daring. The fact that he was a sixteen year old paraplegic earned him some raised eyebrows in the art world was a blessing, but he needed solid pieces to continue to wrangle more buyers in. And this house had to have something worth sketching, worth painting!
It just had to.
Looking up when he heard a crash, he saw his mother directing the same large man he’d spied earlier, telling him that the medical equipment had to go into the large drawing room downstairs, along with the bed and the chestnut-colored drawers that would hold Chris’s clothing. Smiling at his Mom when she looked over at him, he ducked his eyes as he thought about how tired she looked today.
“Hopefully you can’t give someone cancer by having it…” Chris mumbled, rubbing at his lower back where he could feel the tumor. The thing had been there all his life, strangling the lower part of his spine and retarding his growth. It prevented him from walking and made him perpetually ill, and required monthly treatments to keep in check.
Turning around, Chris rolled to the sidewalk, bumping over a small nodule in the grass that turned out to be a hidden sprinkler. He saw some kids his age hanging out down the street at the entrance of a park, skateboarding and the like. It would make his mother happy if he could tell her about them. Who knows, he might even make a friend?
Chris rolled down the sidewalk past the gigantic yellow truck holding what little he and his Mom owned, swerving around one of the movers who eyed him curiously. Picking up speed, Chris allowed himself to smile as he rolled across driveways and over water hoses towards the wooded region of the neighborhood. He stopped to catch his breath when he arrived at the large nameplate for the residences.
“Cedar Hills…” He said, mouthing the words slowly. “Funny, didn’t see any hills coming in.”
“You’d see those just a little bit more north,” said a red headed boy, the freckles covering his face and arms almost tanning his skin. He walked across the street, looking for cars, and up to Chris. Hands in his pockets, he looked Chris up and down before nodding a little.
Chris squinted at the new boy, not sure what to make of him, and especially uncertain of the nodding. “Who’re you?” He asked.
“Oh, sorry,” the redhead said, running a hand over his hair and rubbing his neck. “Names Dillon. Reckon you’re not from around here if you’re expecting hills?”
“You’d reckon right,” Chris smiled, rolling back to rest his wheels partially on a lawn of blue-green grass. “The names Chris Bourbor, pleasure to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” Dillon replied, wiping his nose. “You looking for the others?”
“How’d you guess?” Chris asked.
“Well, you don’t look like the type who’d go for a walk… I mean, you don’t look like, er… you know, the kind of guy who…”
“Who is in a wheelchair and doesn’t like awkward conversations about it?” Chris supplied, clapping his hands together before flashing both thumbs up at Dillon. “Then you’d be right, I don’t!”
Dillon laughed, his hand drifting back towards his pocket so he could look at the ground, flushing red with embarrassment. “Sorry,” he said. “Only person I’ve ever met in a wheelchair was like ninety-years old.”
“Well you’re in luck,” Chris said, rolling forward. “I’m a lot more fun than some old person, though not nearly as giving with old war-time stories. Hope you’ll manage.”
Dillon laughed. “I’ll try. You want to meet the gang?”
Now it was Chris’s turn to laugh. “You actually refer to yourselves as a gang? Man, I should’ve stayed in New York.”
“You’re from New York? What brings you down to Texas?” Dillon asked, moving to walk alongside Chris as he rolled down the sidewalk.
“School for my Mom, work as well. We’re being paid to watch over some old manor home set back in the neighborhood.”
Dillon gasped. “The old Pennywell place?”
Chris thought for a moment before nodding slowly. “Mom didn’t exactly show me the paperwork, but yeah, I think so. Why, you know it?”
“Yeah man, it’s… well, it’s complicated.” Dillon said, as if that explained anything.
“I can imagine,” Chris said, rolling at a faster pace. “What, is it haunted or something?”
“How’d you guess?” Dillon asked, stopping in his tracks. Chris rolled on for a good ten feet before he did a small U-turn, moving back closer to Dillon.
“You mean it is haunted? As in ghosts and stuff?” Chris asked, amused.
Dillon nodded slowly. “Yeah, one of my brothers broke in there when he was younger, went in with a group of friends. Said they saw a ghost.”
“So your brother saw a ghost… or told you a lie to scare you?” Chris asked, leaning in his chair.
“You are aware big brothers sometimes tease little ones with scary stories and stuff like that, right?”
“Yeah,” Dillon replied, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
“And has your brother ever lied to you?” Chris asked.
“Well, yeah, but…” Dillon began before Chris waved a hand up, dismissing the idea.
“Then not going to hear it! I did not move into a haunted house, just an old one.” Chris said, spinning back around. “Now are we going to meet the gang or what?”
Chris was impressed by the park that was just at the outskirts of the neighborhood. While there were tinges of graffiti dotting the blank cement walls, it seemed clean with numerous trashcans dropped in discrete locations. Great stone tables were laid out in groups of three, in between great skateboarding pools built into the stonework, pools that several kids were skating up and down while girls sat around and watched. Chris could appreciate the view (of the girls) and kept pace with Dillon easily. He called out to them when they were some thirty feet away, waving a hand at the blonde girl who looked over her shoulder at him.
Chris smiled as he pushed himself forward, rolling to a stop at around the same time the three boys did, skating up to the rim of the pools and pulling out of them in a stumble. There were five other teens besides Dillon, three other boys and two girls. The boys, sweaty from their games of chicken and tag, were gasping for air as Dillon stopped, marking a spot for Chris to park himself.
“Hey guys,” Dillon said, eyes meeting each of his friends before he looked down at Chris. “This is a new kid.”
Chris waved a hand up, smiling. “Chris Bourbor, nice to meet ya.”
One of the boys with a skateboard wearing a torn grey shirt bearing a picture of a drum set spoke up. “Greg Durocher.”
Another, a bald boy wearing a red tee shirt, nodded at Chris before fixing his crooked glasses at the end of his nose. “Phillip, Phillip Stevens.”
The last boy gave Chris a look before his eyes went to the wheelchair, just for a moment. “Simon Chavez,” he said.
The two girls, sitting cross-legged on a small break from the pavement on some blue grass. “I’m Sam,” the blonde said before motioning towards the kinky-haired girl, “and that’s Jessica.”
Chris smiled, trying to act calm and collected. He didn’t want to scare anyone away from being his friend, or worse, get a group of people who were extra nice to him because of his disability. Instead of saying anything, he looked at what the girls were doing. A large sketchbook sat in Sam’s lap, a half drawn picture of a young man on a skateboard done in charcoal greeting the world.
“Nice picture,” he said, pointing to it. The boys all looked over at the sketchbook, which Sam quickly pulled up to her chest, closing it.
“You didn’t see that,” she said with a laugh. “It’s not done.”
“Is that why you’re hiding it?” Jessica asked with a sly smile. “Or are you hiding it because it’s of someone in particular?”
Chris noted Dillon’s ears flush red at this comment and smiled. “All I saw was a boy; there wasn’t any color to it.”
“Like I said, it’s not done.” Sam growled playfully, swatting at Jessica as she reached for the sketchbook.
The boys all laughed, Chris included, when Jessica made a cross-eyed face. “Are you sure?” She asked her voice real low.
Sam laughed, clutching the book tightly. “Yes, now put away the silly and act respectable, we have a new guy here.”
Jessica snorted before throwing a leg out and lying back in the grass. “You wish I was respectable…”
“Don’t listen to her Chris; Jess is a fine young girl.” Greg said, squatting down and leaning on his skateboard.
“Oi! Don’t you tell people about me!” Jess shouted, kicking out at Greg despite there being five foot gap between them.
“Yeah, she’s a real doll!” Phillip laughed.
“Knock it off!” She said, bolting upright with a handful of acorns, pelting the boys with the small hard nuts.
“Ow! Yeah, she’s, dammit, really sweet!” Simon said, covering his face as he was smacked with a well-thrown nut.
Sam and Dillon were laughing, while Chris was leaning back in his chair. “I don’t know guys, she looks kind of mean.”
“Thank you Chris!” Jess said, giving him a nod with a smile.
“… all four foot ten of her.” Chris said, ending his statement with a quick roll backwards behind Dillon, who merely laughed before swearing as he was pelted with a handful of acorns.
“Hey,” he shouted, wiping the dirt that had smudged his shirt off. “Why’d you throw them at me? He’s the one that made fun of your height!”
“Yeah well, you laughed. Plus, he was smart enough to move behind you.”
“Thank you!” Chris called from his safe spot. “Truce?”
“For now,” Jessica said, getting up from the ground. “Man, you’re a speedy little thing.”
“Yeah well, can’t have fast feet, so I have fast hands.” Chris said, wiggling his long fingers. He almost didn’t notice the darker hue appear beneath Jessica’s mocha-colored cheeks.
“So what do you all do for fun around here?” Chris asked.
“Skate,” Greg and Simon said at once, grinning at each other.
“Draw,” Sam said.
Jessica just shrugged. “I watch them, so there’s your answer.”
“Well I can draw, though I prefer to paint.” Chris said, a small smile gracing his features.
“How old are you?” Sam asked him.
“Sixteen, how about you guys?”
They all replied that they were the same age. “So do you all go to school together?” Chris asked, rolling towards one of the stone tables, the sound of his wheels joined by the sound of three sets of smaller ones. Dillon and Sam took a seat on one bench across from Jessica, leaving an open spot at the head of the table for Chris. Simon continued to skate around them in circles, doing small tricks, while Greg and Phillip stopped and produced small tool kits that they used to clean the wheels of their skateboards.
“Yeah, we go to Joseph Marshall High School, the home of the mighty rams!” Jessica exclaimed, earning a round of chuckles from the rest of the teens.
“Sounds boring.” Chris said, leaning forward onto the stone table.
Sam smiled. “It’s not so bad, the classes are really nice.”
“Says the honor roll student,” Jessica grinned.
“Nothing wrong with being on the honor roll!” Sam shot back before turning to Dillon. “You don’t think there’s anything wrong with it do you?”
Dillon began stammering, earning laughter from everyone. Chris smiled to himself as the wind blew the scent of oak pollen over the area. Dillon sneezed, wiping at his face as he glowered at the tangles of pollen fluttering around.
“Stupid oak… my allergies are killing me!” Dillon exclaimed.
Sam looked over at him, concern on her face. “Did you take any allergy medication? I have some from home in my bag if you want.”
Dillon nodded while Jessica folded her arms on the table, looking over at Chris. “So what’s your story? Where you from?”
Chris merely smiled as he watched Dillon pop the two gel caps from the small silver packet. “New York originally, though I’ve been all around.”
“All around huh? Military brat?” Jessica asked.
“No, my Mom looks over estates for people, usually old people. We moved into the Pennywell place near the back of the subdivision.” Chris replied laughing as Dillon swallowed the pills, making a face as he was forced to do so without the aid of a drink.
“The Pennywell place?” Simon said as he circled closer. “You know it’s haunted right?”
Chris watched Simon as he skated by. “It’s not haunted, it’s just old. Nobody has lived in it for like a decade, with a monthly cleaning service going in and keeping it somewhat livable.”
“Whatever fool, I hear the place is haunted.” Phillip said from the ground. He looked up at Chris, who craned himself around Jessica to look at him. “I’m just saying, Pennywell was a creepy old dude, my old man used to go see his shows.”
“Shows?” Chris repeated. “I didn’t know he was a performer.”
“Yeah, Pennywell was a magician in the 60’s. He was all about the gloom and doom that magic brought about, and regularly defied death with creepy tools.”
Chris looked at Phillip, wondering about what he might be able to find in the house. “Is he dead? I mean, did he die here?”
Phillip nodded. “The old man had a heart attack in the house and was found in a coma the next day. His wife moved to Florida when I was like five.”
“What was she like?” Chris asked.
“Creepy,” Jessica said. “She babysat me when I was younger. She always wore pink, sparkly blouses and lathered on make-up, pulling her hair back into tight ponytails to pull back her wrinkles.”
“Was she at least friendly?” Chris asked, wincing at the thought of the woman.
Jessica winced. “Not really. She came over to watch over me and just played cartoons while she drank glass after glass of wine. She started to tell me stories about her husband, stories that I really never understood until a few years ago.”
“What do you mean?” Chris asked, ignoring the chuckles from Greg and Phillip.
“Apparently Mr. Pennywell wasn’t too, er, affectionate… she lamented her lonely life to a five year old as if I could understand, leaving me confused and loaded with questions for my parents when they came home.”
“I bet that would have been funny to watch,” Dillon said.
Jessica shrugged. “She never looked after me again, that’s for sure.”
Chris leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. “So she was a creepy old lady and her husband was an uncaring magician with marital problems. This does not make a haunted house; by God, you said that Mr. Pennywell is still alive!”
“Yeah, but his body is brain-dead. A couple people who’ve broken into the place to see it for themselves always have stories of ghosts, cold spots and voices.”
“All of which have rational explanations I’m sure,” Chris replied, staring at Jessica. She merely shrugged.
“We’re just telling you what we know,” Jessica said. “Give you fair warning and all that.”
“Well consider me duly warned,” Chris said. “So any other cool hangouts that you guys frequent? I love watching people skateboard as much as the next person, but you can only watch someone go up and down a rink so many times before you get bored.”
“Hey!” Greg said indignantly.
“It’s true,” Sam said, grimacing slightly as if the words tasted sour in her mouth. “Jessica and I just tag along because we’d otherwise be stuck doing chores.”
“We could always meet at my place and play video games,” Dillon offered, earning a low groan from the girls.
“That’s even worse, because you guys get all hung up on the fighting games.” Sam explained.
Chris rolled back a bit. “Well so long as you feed yourselves beforehand, you can always come by and hang out at my house. I use my computer to stream TV shows straight to the television through my PlayStation.”
“That’s a… nice offer, but I’m not exactly certain how wise it would be for a group of teenagers to gather in old man Pennywell’s house. He notoriously hated teenagers and would often turn the hose on them if he caught them in his gardens.”
Chris looked at Phillip. “There are gardens at the house?”
Phillip nodded. “Big ones, with exotic plants that grow well in hot environments like Southern Texas; he liked to have them pruned and set up around the house for display.”
“And how do you know that?” Chris asked.
“He used to host dinner parties, once a year on Halloween. The kids would be watched by the caretaker, usually having us watch movies or the like while we stuffed ourselves on candy, while he showed off his collection of plants and other oddities.”
Chris looked down to where Phillip had sat, a skateboard wheel in one hand while he cleaned the axle. “What other oddities Phil?”
“It’s Phillip,” Phillip huffed before setting the wheel down. “And I don’t rightly know. My parents only went because it was the only social event in town that we were actually invited to by name, and they never talked about what they saw to me.”
“My parents used to go as well,” Sam interjected, her sketchbook out, a fresh sketch slowly taking form. “They said it was exciting learning about all the different things Mr. Pennywell had seen and done. After he retired from magic he traveled quite a bit and always brought home several dozen new pieces of art to decorate his home. Mom says his wife dreaded it, but what can you do?”
“But if his wife didn’t like people coming to the manor, why would she allow it?” Chris asked.
“Who knows?” Jessica shrugged. “They obviously didn’t have a perfect marriage, but an annual soiree is hardly something that would cause a divorce. Heck, he had the heart attack when we were like five, so the parties stopped from then on.”
“Yeah, the manor used to be all lit up at night when he was there, but after they took him away it went dark,” Dillon said. “Mrs. Pennywell moved out pretty quick, not even two weeks after what happened to her husband.”
Sam drew a quick shaded circle near the bottom of the thick paper of her sketchbook, looking up at Chris as she drew. “I may not believe in ghosts like the rest of these twits, but you’d better be careful there. If ghosts are real, I’m sure that the Pennywell Manor would play host to some.”
Chris pondered that for a moment. While he didn’t exactly believe in ghosts, he’d never exactly been in a situation where he would have to believe. He’d lived in some old houses with his mother, and all of them were pretty creepy in their own right. But never haunted.
Looking up and locking eyes with Jessica, Chris merely smiled. “Thank you for warning me,” he said.
She shrugged once again, her tee shirt tight across her shoulders, forcing Chris to steady his eyes.
Yeah, he thought as Jessica smiled at him. I definitely think I can find some friends here. And maybe something more…
Author's Note: A novel that's I've put a few dozen hours into, decided I'd spend November rewriting and finishing it.