Chapter 1

August 13, 2001

Dear Journal,

Every night it’s the same nightmare. I’ve experienced other nightmares before, but one stands out among the rest, haunting me with no end in sight. For years I’ve dreaded falling asleep; I can’t understand what the nightmares mean. Several times I’ve suffered from bruises on my arms, legs, and back. Some mornings I can’t get out of bed.

If I remember anything in full detail, I try to write it down before going to school. Nightmares that are too difficult to follow, I often draw pictures and sketches of them in my notebook; this scares me the most ’cause drawings occur without any warning throughout the day. Once, I found myself doodling in class. I stopped, and couldn’t remember any of my teacher’s lectures. During the night, I check my bed and closet for anything unusual.

I do it without even thinking sometimes. I’m sure if people found out they’d think I was crazy, but it’s my ritual. I have two night-lights in my room; they’re always on ’cause if I ever turn them off, the horrors will come out again. They seem to hate the light, yet it’s only a matter of time before the bulbs burn out. I have no idea how long I can last without real sleep. The nightmares are getting stronger.

Even with all the lights on, I still don’t feel safe. It seems as if the small night-lights are more of a nuisance to Mom. Despite how hard I try, I know deep down inside they’re getting bolder. I can still fall asleep at any moment. Mom doesn’t have a clue. She doesn’t realize what’s happening to me, and she doesn’t have any suspicions about the cuts on my body.

I always manage to explain myself by telling her I’m playing too hard at school. I’m somewhat on the football, track, and volleyball team. It’s just ’cause I have P.E. class. I’m considered a geek and a pathetic loser to everyone on campus. I spend long hours in my room, writing and surfing the net. It’s better to keep my mind busy with other things besides homework and sports.

Not falling asleep for days is like Mission Impossible! It’s an unattainable goal for me – avoiding it will bring forth a shit load of pain; it upsets me to the point that I’ve become depressed. I get so lonely. Sometimes, I think about killing myself. It’s sickening to know I’m desensitized to certain images; my so-called friends flaunt pornographic magazines in front of my face, so often that it doesn’t even faze me anymore.

Everyone believes I’m different – I’m an outsider. A freak. An alien. I’m unlike the other kids, and I display no emotion to anyone. I just feel angry all the time, mostly toward my mom and sister.  

******

The door creaked open. Small and unclean fingers touched everything on the red, oak desk. Five plastic army men, the green toy soldiers Mom had given me last Christmas, parachuted to the floor. My old basketball cards were folded, disorganized, and scattered across the floor; they remind me of a deck of poker chips. My favorite players were Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway.

I had pictures of them slam dunking the ball, scoring huge points for the Orlando Magic. A pale hand ripped the protective laminated covers on the cards. Shaq and Penny were now castoffs. The computer, on screensaver mode, switched off as sticky fingers grabbed the mouse. My baby sister Isadora (I called her Isa) could be annoying sometimes.

She was bored to death, and came into my territory causing nothing but destruction in her path. I ignored Isa as she slid the mouse pad inch by inch; knew by now that my little sister was moving the black arrow on the computer monitor. The cord, still attached to the outlet, was yanked out.

Isa threw the mouse pad like a Frisbee. It flew far. The foamy pad struck my blinds and the curtainless window.

“Zander.” Isa pulled on my white-and-blue dotted sheets.

The covers slipped off me and fell to the carpet, the new carpet Mom decided to buy. Its gray color made my room so dreary; the fabric felt like grain as I wiped my bare feet on it.

“Mommy says, ‘stop writin’ under there,” babbled the soft voice of my sister.

She stood on her tiptoes and stared right at me. Isa crossed her small arms over her chest. Her chubby cheeks made her appear infantile, whenever she scrunched up her face in anger. I could’ve sworn Isa’s mousy hair appeared dirty blond once the sunlight hit her at an angle. Her hair was straighter than mine, yet curvy along the ends.

Isa glared at me with those beady black eyes of hers. She had on the cutest pajamas. Today’s fashion statement was Winnie the Pooh bears with blue umbrellas. Isa loved watching cartoons, since she was a baby, and would always play the role of a character from TV. I raised my head and dropped my pencil with pure resentment.

“Isa.” I pointed to the door. “Get out of my room.”

Isa remained at the foot of my bed and watched me in silence. I picked up my pencil and threw it outside in the hallway. Missed her on purpose, of course. I expected my troublesome sister would go away and fetch the pencil, but she didn’t. Nope, on the contrary, Isa continued to gaze at me with that pouty face of hers.

“Why? I don’t do nothin’.” She jumped on my bed and snuggled beside me.

Isa smelled of fresh powder and baby wash; her forehead nudged against my chin. She felt soft to the touch as if her skin was fine linen or silk. I closed my notebook right away, not wanting Isa to take a look inside it. I hadn’t slept a wink last night.

Isa snatched the notebook from my hands and studied it. She was too young to know what a journal was; I had no reason to take it from her, and allowed Isa to do whatever she pleased. Pointless to quarrel with a five-year-old, and besides, I didn’t want to make her cry.

“What you readin’?” Isa asked in that innocent tone of hers.

She opened the notebook, more like my diary, and positioned it on top of her head. She thought it was a sun hat. I rolled my eyes and shook my head at her childish behavior; Isa was a child and a spoiled brat, in fact, she had it so easy. All she thought about was coloring books and TV, yet she watched television at such an early age she became addicted to it.

“It’s none of your business, you little monster!” I retorted.

I stared at the carpet and thought how hideous it looked with its fuzzy surface and sandpaper texture. As if this entity came from the coat of some shaggy dog, I imagined my carpet getting up on all fours and walking away from my room.

“Zander Russell,” Mom called from downstairs.

My mother was King and Queen of the Household.

“You’re going to be late again for school, young man. Get your ass to the bus station. Pronto,” she demanded. “Don’t make me tell you twice.”

From the sound of her voice I could tell she wasn’t pleased with me.

What did I do this time? I thought.

I heard the floor squeak as footsteps approached.

“Zander.” Mom appeared in the doorway.

I blinked and stared at the yellow gloves on her hands; Mom’s brown hair was in a ponytail. On her forehead were my green biology goggles. She must’ve been cleaning again; the strong smell of bleach was in the air, and whenever Mom stressed out, she found cleaning to be therapeutic.

“Get up or you’re going to be late for school. I can’t drive you today if you miss that bus.” Mom raised her eyebrows.

She was surprised to see me so calm with Isa sitting right beside me.

“I’m going,” I whispered.

Mom went downstairs and left the front door wide open, just for me, in case I had to make a dash for the bus. Meanwhile upstairs, Isa followed me around like a lost puppy trying to find her way home. I stopped in front of the mirror and checked my reflection. A few of my features came from Mom: we both had the same brown eyes, the same nose, and the same small hands.

Mom believed I looked just like Dad. I didn’t think he and I were even related, not to my eyes anyway. When I compared old photographs of my dad, we look nothing alike; he had broader shoulders, coffee skin, and a large forehead. Everyone in town thought my mom and I were twins, since we acted much the same.

“When you’re older, you’ll look just like your father,” Mom said all the time.

Isa mimicked me as I brushed my hair back with a comb; I was already dressed for school. I wore loose casual clothing: a black cashmere hooded sweater, a white T-shirt underneath, and long navy blue jeans. I was all set for the day when my feet left the bedroom…or tried to. I had taken two steps forward when I realized Isa clutching my shirt with those tiny paws of hers.

“Let go, munchkin.” I frowned at her.

“Can I come?”

Isa jerked on my clothes; she then embraced my leg and sucked her thumb. I sighed. I couldn’t just yank her off. She was adorable sometimes, when she wanted to be.

“No. I can’t,” I explained with simple words. “Mom would kill me.”

Isa released me and scampered inside my room. I don’t know why I waited, but I had a gut feeling she was going to return with some object in her tiny fingers.

“Here.” Isa handed over my diary.

I gave her a slight hug. “Can I have a kiss?” I puckered my lips like a goldfish and made funny kissing noises.

Isa giggled. “Yes, you can.” She smiled with glee.

I knelt down to receive a light peck on the cheek as if I were a Knight of The Round Table, swearing allegiance to King Arthur and his mighty kingdom, Camelot.

“Thank you. I’ll see you later, okay…munchkin.” I ruffled Isa’s hair and winked at her.

Isa may have been a nuisance at times, yet overall she was still a good kid. Even though Isa was my half sister, I loved her just the same as if we were Siamese twins. I hiked downstairs while cramming the notebook into my bag; I leaped over the last few steps and slammed the door on my way out. Mom ran to the front door and opened it.

“Don’t forget your keys, Zander.” She waved at me.

“I already have them.”

“Are you sure? Did you check?”

“Yes. I’m sure. Don’t worry so much.”

“If you lock yourself out of the house again, you’ll have to wait until five o’clock.”

“I know.”

“Be good and don’t get yourself into any more fights, you hear?”

“I won’t. I promise.” I turned around and waved goodbye to her.

I was already on the sidewalk. If Mom knew that I was dying inside, rotting to the core, she would’ve done something. I missed what I needed in life. A friend. I craved for someone to talk to; I wished that anyone could experience exactly what I felt every night. I kept this horrible secret hidden away from everyone.

People wouldn’t understand; they’d be confused and possibly frightened. I was afraid of the kids at school. What would they think of me? They might believe that my ex-stepfather had abused me, physically and sexually. That wasn’t my intention though, because he died a couple years back. Although, I knew my so-called friends well, I never considered them good pals.

You see, I’m half Cherokee. My real father abandoned us after I was born. Mom remarried, hence the last name change, Russell. That’s when Isa came into the picture; however, it was a rocky start for her to begin with. When I was younger, I believed that Dad would come back to us someday. I wanted to know where he was, and how he was doing.

Did he miss us? Was he living alone? Did he have a new family to take care of? If he ever decided to come back, I’d easily forgive him since he was my father, despite what people thought. If Dad came home, I would have someone to talk to about my nightmares, instead of my diary and Isa, who didn’t understand anything to begin with. I was so naive back then.

“Have a great day, hon!” Mom said, before she closed the front door.

The ironic thing was the way she said it; I already had the worst day of my life, she just didn’t know it yet.

If only she knew…

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