Sam Burkes likely had one of the most fitting nicknames of anyone in history. Even without his mottled face, hooked beak of a nose, and hunched back draped with black, greasy locks of hair, the name “The Vulture” was apropos. Sam “The Vulture” Burkes shred his sustenance off of the bones of the dead and decaying–at least in a metaphorical sense. His beady black eyes pierced his victims with a vile gaze while his wicked, carrion-flecked tongue lashed out, draining away the lifeforce with words that cut into flesh and bone. Sam suckled delightedly on the marrow of sorrow, content to watch tormented spirits wither away, fleshless on empty roadsides.
The student body of Meridian High had had enough of Sam Burkes; many had been dealing with The Vulture’s abuses for years. Sam cast an aura of intimidation, his hulking size and predatory countenance only adding to the darkness he exuded by his scathing mental acuity. Students had attempted rallying the jocks to intervene as if it were a team sport, combining their efforts to turn the tables of intimidation, yet all actions were in vain. All saw the monster lurking beneath the black surface of Sam’s eyes; that dark tinge of psychosis was a staunch deterrent.
Gage Dillard knew none of this on his first day at Meridian High School. All Gage knew was the resentment he had for his father, forcing him to start at a new school during his Junior year, and the disdain for his mother, the catalyst for the drastic change. Gage wasn’t prepared to start over again. He was bound and determined to make new friends without resorting to his own gifts of influence–without using The Touch, as he’d come to call it. Then Gage Dillard met Sam Burkes, and all of those notions changed as quickly as a pubescent’s mood.
The hallway was crowded, a whirlwind of sights and smells and sounds: Vanilla bodyspray, sweaty gym clothes, a conversation’s cadence interrupted by braying laughter, overapplied hairspray, a thumping bassline from neck-hanging headphones, shiny over-gelled hairdos, musty textbooks, hormones, the general squall of teenage fuckery… Gage wove through the crowd, his body tall and lank, his shoulders broad, protruding from his sides like shoulder pads he didn’t know he wore. With each bump, a flash, with each touch, a glimpse inside hearts and minds and memories. Gage would never get used to it, but at least he’d learned to keep the feelings out of his face. He found his locker behind a couple enthusiastically swapping spit.
“You’re the new kid.”
Gage looked up from his bag where he’d been fishing around for his padlock. The girl’s hair was shiny, long, her eyes bright green, curious. “Yeah… today’s my first day,” Gage said.
“I’m Melissa. Call me Mel.” She smiled, revealing a retainer on her bottom teeth.
“Nice to mee…”
Gage slammed into her–shoved from behind–his nose cracking on Mel’s lotioned forehead. His bag fell to the floor, spewing books and looseleaf paper and pens. Suddenly the hall was silent but for a wheezing, labored breath creating a cloud of sickly stench. Rubbing his nose, checking for blood, Gage turned to face the legendary bully of Meridian High. Sam “The Vulture” Burkes had six inches on Gage and easily a hundred pounds. He looked like he shopped exclusively at Hot Topic, had untreated scoliosis, and may not have had access to soap or running water. His long neck jutted forward as if struggling to support an anvil from an invisible head-mounted harness.
“Hey, new kid…” Sam said. “Word is, your mom whored-out the entire NorthEast, and your family had to move South to scavenge for resources…” Sam’s smile was a half-moon of dirty bathroom tiles. He leaned closer. “And by resources, I mean, co…”
“I get what you mean,” Gage interrupted. Gage wondered if the bully’s comment hitting so close to home was pure coincidence. After months of marriage counseling, Gage’s mother had finally admitted to sleeping with half of Mr. Dillard’s male co-workers and twice as many randoms around town. Gage had opted to live with his father before discovering a new job would take them a thousand miles away. Calling someone’s mother a whore was pretty standard in the repertoire of teenage insults; Gage shrugged it off, kneeling to pick up his belongings.
“I’m still talking to you!” The Vulture roared, shoving Gage over with a dirty boot, leaving mud on Gage’s bony shoulder.
Gage fell back, his head clanging against the lockers as the surge of memories and impressions crashed over him from The Vulture’s touch. To everyone watching, Gage’s eyes only dulled over for an instant, his face only flashing with a blank, lifeless stupor for a mere moment in time; to Gage, the fullness of Sam Burkes’s fifteen-and-a-half years pressed upon him with the weight of the earth’s oceans. Sam’s life wasn’t full of years of neglect or parental abuse; there was no major trauma. Sam’s parents were wealthy, loving, attentive. If anything, he was spoiled. Sam’s only abuses were those bestowed upon him by many of the very same students now drinking from Sam’s endless cup of wrath. The taunting, harassing, and bullying had poured like hot coals upon Sam’s head for years and years before Sam grew eight inches and honed his own craft.
“I see you. I hear you. I’m sorry,” Gage replied, after a split second that felt like an eternity. Gage’s azure eyes glowed like the ocean in the sun; they were firmly affixed upon Sam’s beady black marbles. Gage leaped to his feet, and Sam instinctively stepped backward, unsettled by Gage’s lack of fear, his penetrating stare.
Sam clenched his fists, mustered his resolve to advance again. “You WILL be sorry,” he said.
Gage appraised the silent crowd of onlookers, masking his disdain and pity. He surrendered to his gift. The students of Meridian High needed a lesson they would never forget. Gage lashed out toward the two closest in a lightning-quick movement: His left hand clasping Sam’s wrist, his right hand latching onto Mel’s shoulder. Gage flexed his mind-muscle in a way he’d never attempted, feeling the actual power surge through his body and electrify Sam and Mel with his touch.
The hallway was filled with short audible gasps and the sharp sounds of clapping hands, skin on skin. It seemed some kind of freakish domino effect, arms whipping out, bookbags and cellphones falling as the throng of students became interlaced with one another, a massive, pulsing spiderweb. In moments, the sounds ceased but for a sudden, steady, synchronized breath; the entire web of teenagers stared at Gage Dillard with expressionless eyes, their breathing somehow in tune with his own.
Gage began to vibrate, imperceptible at first, a thrum spiraling from deep inside as his energy assimilated the memories, feelings, and hurt… Then, Gage simply let go, expelling the tsunami of emotions back into his spiderwebbed congregation. Sobs and wails and indecipherable utterances began bouncing off the painted cinderblock walls, the entire student body vibrating like a mass of Daddy Long Legs seething in a high corner. Behind clenched eyes, Gage allowed the circuit to roll out in waves to completion. He allowed all to feel each other’s pain, see the ramification of their hurtful words and spiteful actions. Above all, Gage Dillard allowed every single one of Sam’s victims to see that “The Vulture” was nothing but a creation of their own devising–their own actions come full circle.
Abruptly, Gage let go and fell to his knees. Hundreds of hands and arms fell with a succession of claps and sharp exhalations. Gage opened his eyes as fresh droplets of blood splattered to the rubber-streaked floor before him. He pinched his nose to stop the bleeding. Then, a large clammy hand reached down and helped him to his feet. Gage looked up at Sam Burke’s tear-streaked face and said, “Thank you.”
Sam opened his mouth to speak but closed it when he couldn’t find the words. He simply nodded in reply.
Gage Dillard took his reassembled backpack from a boy with a frazzled bedhead and red t-shirt and then split the crowd of wide-eyed students as he made his way to a bathroom for some paper towels. As the bathroom door swung shut behind him, the murmur and movement returned in the hallway. Meridian High School had likely just become the first school in history with a student body who truly understood the word empathy.
Gage cleaned his face and found himself smiling at the moist reflection in the dirty mirror. Maybe his new home would be ok after all; his first day was off to a hell of a start…