Sunday, November 06, 2005

Chapter 7

Gordon Ross awoke on a grey Thursday morning to the sound of his mother's shrieks coming from the kitchen. Blearily, he squinted at the clock by his bed until it came into focus. 6:25 AM – he could have slept another 5 minutes before his alarm went off. Then he woke up a little bit more, enough to realize that regardless of time, it was probably worthwhile to get up and find out why his mother was screaming.

He reached the kitchen about the same time as his father, hurrying along with a partially tied tie around his neck. His little sister Fiona, who was only six, peered out worriedly from her doorway. Their mother was balanced precariously on a chair and pointing at the floor.

"Martha, what – " Mr. Ross began, then followed her finger and laughed. "A wee mouse! Well, well, I'd better be calling the police, then."

Mrs. Ross glared at him. "It's horrid! Look! It's got its head torn off!"

"Well, it probably won't be much of a threat to our cheese then, will it dear?" But he did stop laughing to take a closer look. "Probably just something the cat dragged in."

"We haven't got a cat, Da," Gordon pointed out, with a roll of his eyes.

"Oh, aye, you're right. Well, let me just get something to clean it up. Come down off the chair, dear."

She did so reluctantly, muttering fearfully about where she might find the rest of the mouse and how she was certainly not going to enter the kitchen again without a sturdy pair of boots on.

Having a teenage boy's natural fascination with the gruesome, Gordon helped his dad scoop the mousy remains into a plastic bag. Its head really was entirely gone, and a bit of tiny, jagged vertebrae protruded from its neck. They looked around the floor and under the counters and chairs, but found no more evidence of it.

"What d'ye reckon really happened to it?" Gordon asked, once his mother had left the room.

"I reckon its heid exploded when your ma screamed at it," he said confidentially, giving Gordon a wink. "Spontaneous Murine Combustion they call it. Happens all the time."

Gordon didn't like to give his father the satisfaction of laughing at his corny jokes, but he couldn't repress a grin.

Back in his room, he turned off his now-ringing alarm clock, sat down on the end of his bed and heaved a sigh. It had been a tolerably exciting start to his day, but it was just going to go downhill from here. Bus rides, school, algebra test, Lucy Campbell, homework… blah, blah, blah, God only knows, and blah. So much to look forward to. Then he noticed something down by his feet, sitting on his school bag.

It was a small stuffed animal, a faded grey cat with a white X-shaped marking on its chest. It had been Gordon's favorite when he was younger (much younger, he assured himself), and he had called it Ixy, since he had liked the letter X. Silly name. He didn't know what it was doing out now, though. The last time he had even seen it was probably a couple of years ago, and that was just to push it farther back in his closet to make room for some other toys he had outgrown. He put it on the book shelf next to him and got up to get ready for school.

The bus ride from the outskirts of Edinburgh to Galbraith High School, nearer the center of the city, was always tedious. Gordon managed to snag a window seat on the right side of the bus so he could watch Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags as they drew closer. There were clouds over them that morning, but it was the best view he had. He drew on the cover of his notebook to pass the time, little armies of headless mice.

School was a typical disaster. He could have laughed at his answers on the algebra test had it not been his own grade that was taking the high road to a low D. Then Lucy Campbell had taken her seat next to him in history class and asked what he was drawing, and why oh why did it have to be the headless mice again? He could have drawn all sorts of things that would have been more impressive and not elicited a raised eyebrow or a wrinkled nose. That was a conversation killer for sure. He mortified slowly through the rest of the day and then got on the long bus ride back.

The next morning began with Gordon's alarm clock waking him up, rather than any of the previous day's dramatics. He rolled over to turn it off and found himself staring into the enormous glass eye of a cat. He gave a start, then realized it was just Ixy again. Nothing like a real cat, but that eye up close had scared – no, just surprised – him. What was she doing on his pillow? Hadn't he left her on the bookcase or something? He put her aside and then got up to get dressed.

"Gordon! What happened to your face, sweetie?" Mrs. Ross was in the kitchen, in her boots, when Gordon came in to get breakfast.

"What? What do you mean?"

"Your face, dear. You've got a scratch across your cheek. What did you do?"

"Really? I don't know."

He went to the bathroom to check in a mirror. Sure enough, there was a thin red scratch going down his right cheek. His mother followed him in and began trying to apply ointment to it.

"Are you sure you don't know? I'd have thought you'd notice something like this happening."

"Yes, I'm sure. Stop it! Here, let me put that on." He took the ointment from her. "Maybe it just happened while I was asleep. I don't know."

His mother gave him a worried look, but relented a little bit.

"Well, alright. Just be careful, and don't let that get infected."

"I know, Ma, I know. It's not that bad, really. Just a scratch."

He dabbed at it a bit, but opted against putting a bandage on it. It wasn't actually bleeding and a bandage would probably just call more attention to it. Still, it was kind of embarrassing, and he wished he had a decent explanation for it. A pity he couldn't say he cut himself shaving, but it would be another year at least before that would make a believable excuse.

He passed his bedroom again on the way back out to the kitchen, and saw Ixy still laying there on his pillow. No sharp parts on a stuffed animal, of course, even if he had been sleeping with it, which of course he hadn't been. Not deliberately, anyway. Still, that cat was starting to give him the creeps. He went in, reached under his bed, and pulled out a shoe box. He removed an old pair of sandals from last summer, put Ixy in, and closed the lid on her. For good measure, he found a rubber band on his nightstand and put it around the box. Okay, that much was a bit silly, but at least he was certain where he left her this time. He shoved it all back under the bed.

Another day, another blah. The algebra test came back and from the looks of it, the only reason he had gotten the few points he did, was that his test had caused a national shortage of red ink and there hadn't actually been enough to finish removing the other points. Mr. MacDowell took him aside after class.

"Gordon, about your test…" he began.

"I know, sir. I should have studied more." Gordon hated conversations like this.

"Yes, I had surmised as much myself. What I wanted to suggest, however, was that you might benefit from the new Galbraith After School Support programme. Do you know about that?"

Did he indeed. The G.A.S.S. programme, he thought. Great, just great. Gordon A Stupid Student gets to go to Galbraith After School Support. Just what I wanted to do.

"It's a wonderful resource," Mr. MacDowell continued, "for students who are… well, struggling a little with their schoolwork."

"Yes, sir."

"You can have study sessions with other students, and there are tutors there to help out as well. Does that sound good?"

A very dejected "Yes, sir."

"Alright, then. I know today is Friday and you're probably looking forward to the weekend. But next week it's my turn to staff monitor for the G.A.S.S. sessions, so I expect to see you there. Directly after school, in the study hall."

"Yes, sir."

Lucy didn't even give him a nod in History class that day. Those bloody mice, Gordon thought, though his current glower was probably a bit of a put off as well. Finally classes were out, and Gordon dragged himself home to play video games for a few hours and take his mind off things.

He was woken up that night by a thumping beneath his bed.

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