The following is an excerpt from my debut novel. A life or death Christmas Carol, “Home Street” tells the story of a man who must journey through his past in order to save his future. He must relive his rocky childhood, the dreams of his youth, and conflicts he faced during the Iraq War before he can accept an incredible gift: the opportunity to change one crucial moment that will spare him from certain death.
This chapter sets the scene for his teenage years, when Paul discovered love, heartbreak, and the kind of man he wanted to be when he grew up.
As we walk through the fog, shapes begin to emerge from the gloom. First a chain-link fence. Then a flag pole. Soon we arrive at the top of the hill, and a large, imposing structure rises above us. It resembles a privately-operated, taxpayer-funded, for-profit prison.
“I swore I’d never come back here,” I say, and I silently muse how perhaps some part of me had never left.
“What?” asks Nicholas with an incredulous look. “To your high school?”
“Haven’t been here since they put the plaque in the garden.”
“Like a commemorative thing?”
“The kind that names the kids that went to their schools and died in their wars.”
The halls are empty when we step inside, but as we encounter different landmarks and I’m reminded of specific events, they populate with ghosts, and each happening plays out just as it once did.
“Look at that head of hair,” I say as I walk Nicholas over to my younger self. “Goddamn, I was a good-looking kid.”
I hear Nicholas chuckle, but I ignore him as I circle my old body and try not to compare it to what I walk around in these days.
“First day of freshmen year,” I say as a crowd of students choke the hall. “The vice-principal got to know my name right away. We were waiting to be let into our first class, and I was standing with a few friends right over there.”
I point at a group of freshmen. Fourteen-year-old me is in a playful shoving match with a buddy, which grows more and more intense until Joel’s elbow accidentally smashes through the emergency glass covering the fire extinguisher.
“This shirt is silk,” Joel says, tugging at the fabric to check for holes. Moments later, the vice principal appears and grabs both boys by the neck.
Behind us, a freckle-faced kid with a Cincinnati Reds jacket makes his way through the crowd. My younger self follows close behind, making announcements like a town crier.
“Jeff Murdock coming through! Make way for Jeff Murdock!”
Jeff’s face is becoming more and more amber as he grunts out a protest under his breath. “Shut up, Paul. Stop it, Paul. Everyone’s looking at us, Paul.”
The boy I once was continues in this minstrel game, taking delight in bringing his shy buddy unwanted attention. “Take a good, hard look at Jeff Murdock! Hear ye, hear ye! Jeff Murdock! J-E-F-F M-U-R-D-”
“E-R, because I’m gonna kill you if you don’t quit.”
For the first time tonight, I’m genuinely smiling. I turn Nicholas’s attention to a portly man with silvery Elvis hair and a Han Solo vest. “My art teacher. He used to draw picture after picture of Jeff’s older brother.” I laugh. “Had poor Steve all flustered. There were paintings of him all over the walls of the art room. Happy Steve. Sad Steve. Thinking Steve.”
“Confused Steve,” Nicholas adds.
“You know, that guy told me I was ‘too creative’ for art. Gave me straight D’s!”
Two cute girls come bounding down the stairs.
“Oh!” I say, pushing Nicholas’s face toward them. “I declared the last day of my senior year International Day of Free Love. Kissed every girl I came across. On the cheek, hand, top of the head, wherever they gave consent to.”
The pair of cute girls set down their books and sneak up behind my younger self. As they pounce, breaking into giggles, they pin him to the lockers and plant kisses all over his face and neck. While he laughs and squirms, pretending to struggle against their tickling grasp, I watch on in amazement, still in disbelief that this moment actually happened to me.
“Anya! Bethany! Come on. There’s plenty of me to go around.”
Nicholas smirks, looking at me with amazement. “Looks like you were pretty popular around here.”
I shrug. “I was the class clown.”
Inside one of the classrooms, sixteen-year-old me stares down at a small slip of paper.
“My junior year,” I say to Nicholas, “there was a tie for Homecoming King for my class, and we had to do a revote to decide the winner.”
Sixteen-year-old me looks around the classroom suspiciously.
“Came down to this really handsome guy that kind of looked like a young Sylvester Stallone and – uh – me.”
The classroom starts to shrink, pulling past the bodies as they sit at their desks. The walls segment into small squares and turn into ceramic tiles. A bathtub pushes up from the linoleum floor, and the water inside shifts. Eight-year-old me sits thoughtfully in the tub, eating candy.
“We moved around a lot when I was little, and I had to change schools in the middle of almost every grade before we got here. I was always the least popular kid in every school I went to. Too sensitive. Too introverted. And, yes, as Mr. Fraley was so happy to point out, I was too creative. Not only was I the new kid everywhere we went, but I wasn’t even sure how to talk to people.”
The little boy puts a sucker into his mouth and lays back in the warm water.
“One night, just after Halloween and yet another move, I was taking a bath. I remember this grape lollipop was the most intense thing I’d ever tasted. Just covered my tongue, mixing with the bath water.”
Eight-year-old me sinks underwater, holding the lollipop aloft to keep it dry.
“With a mouthful of that grape, I said one of the most fervent prayers of my life. Sometimes I guess I felt like there wasn’t anyone in the world that truly loved me. I mean, I always had a best friend, because I had my brother Chris. And I had my sister Jen too. I know I wasn’t being reasonable. I wasn’t alone, but I felt helpless at home. And school was kind of a living hell.”
“What did you pray for?” asks Nicholas.
A tall fifth grader with a ruddy face takes a corner and strolls down the hall of a different school. His hands are thrust into his hooded sweatshirt, but he struts with confidence, as though he were the only person in the world. He sings for himself, but he sings loud enough to be heard by everyone else. He warbles and wails a personal rendition of the 1984 hit “Eat It.”
“I guess I must have been in kindergarten. There was this older boy I thought was the coolest kid ever.” I watch the fifth grader’s long strides as he passes. “It seemed like no one ever had anything bad to say about the guy, and I wanted to be just like him.”
The fifth grader ducks around another corner and disappears. I turn back to the boy in the bathtub as eight-year-old me scrutinizes the spent lollipop stick in his hand.
“If Solomon could pray for wisdom,” I say, “why couldn’t I pray to be funny? Maybe people would like me if I was only funny enough.”
“And by the time you got here,” Nicholas says, “things had turned around for you.”
“See, I’ll never know if that’s true.”
The bathroom transforms back into the classroom where sixteen-year-old me asks his friends about the confusing ballot. One of those friends, a pretty girl he had a small crush on, says, “Why not? You’re popular enough.”
Next to her, a guy he’d always respected for honesty and insight, shakes his head. “It’s obviously a joke. Someone’s idea of a prank.”
We continue our walk down the hall.
Nicholas asks, “Why would it have been a prank?”
“Be careful what you wish for, that’s why. When you’re the guy people go to for a laugh, sometimes you’re the joke.”
The bell rings, and I watch as the student body I used to be a part of switches classes. I peer at the faces in the crowd. Even though they’d once been part of my daily life, they’re all strangers now. My perception – my reality – was dependent on the temporary circumstances of adolescence.
“Junior high was where I hit my breaking point,” I say. “My cheeks hurt from my fake smile, and I had a year-long phase where I didn’t bother combing my hair.” I laugh at the self-revelation.
“How did you snap out of it?”
“Two things happened. First, someone loaned me a tape, and I discovered the music that kid in elementary school was singing came from a growing library of work. Most music takes itself oh-so seriously, and that’s not what I needed. I know it might sound strange, but Weird Al spoke to me in a way nothing else did. Soon, Mr. Yankovic became my main obsession, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”
“And did you?”
I face Nicholas with an expression drawn from my interrupted thoughts. “Did I what?”
“Spend your life doing it?”
His question is so earnest I almost can’t believe his naivety.
“No,” I say, my voice dripping with condescension.
Nicholas turns away, nodding. “What was the other thing that happened?”
“I got a summer job working at camp. Teaching kids, performing campfire songs and skits, telling ghost stories. It was a natural fit for me, and since there were two other Paul’s that year, I went by a funny nickname. That helps when you’re working with kids.”
Smiling slyly, Nicholas says, “I bet it does.”
“I’m not telling you my nickname,” I say, keeping the conversation on track. “Sometimes you find something you’re really good at, and I was a great camp counselor. The campers loved me. They’d get excited when they saw me. And the parents, when they’d come at the end of the session, knew me from letters home. I was more than the sum of my parts there, and I can’t tell you what that experience did for my self-esteem.”
I stop, and the hall empties, going silent. The door to my right leads to the auditorium.
“There are parts of your life you can look back on and understand,” I say, “and then there are things that leave you wondering.”
To hear the rest of the story – and see if Weird Al comes up again (spoiler: he does) – grab a copy of the book!