Mad Jack Runner wasn't angry or crazy. He was just strange. The kids at Sandusky Middle School had a knack for coming up with clever nicknames for all the strange kids. Four-eyes, Metal Mouth, Snotty, Fatty, Mad Jack. There were others, but those were the real gems. Mad Jack had the unfortunate affliction of being very smart. Sometimes he hated being smart. Mom said the other kids made fun of him because they were jealous. Jack didn't buy that. The other kids made fun of him because they were mean, and they were taught to feel threatened by anyone who appeared even slightly better than they were.
Superior intellect wasn't Jack's only problem. He was also psychic. He saw ghosts and demons and other supernatural critters. He could talk to them, and they talked back. He tried not to be psychic. It was more of a burden than being smart. The people who lived in the city of Pale were afraid of the spirit world. They insisted it didn't exist. They had to believe that in order to survive in a place where the rain never stopped falling and where the cold spots of spirits would follow anyone the spirits thought might listen to them. Jack was five when he realized that most of the world he as perceived it was invisible to everyone else. He listened to the creatures. He wasn't afraid of them. He wasn't afraid of anything, and that was why they called him Mad Jack.
So it came as no surprise that Mad Jack froze in his tracks one afternoon when someone screamed, and the entire population of Sandusky Middle School went into a panic. He had felt the hell hound coming before he heard the first scream, and he knew that it was lost. He wanted to tell all the idiots running past him and shrieking about a giant rabid dog that they needed to shut the hell up because they were only scaring it more.
Teachers were herding the kids onto the buses or back into the building. Jack just waited. Mrs. Greyson grabbed Jack's arm as she rushed by. She tried to drag him inside, but he pulled himself out of her grip. She paused long enough to see that the hell hound was only a few feet away. She abandoned Jack to save herself. Jack felt the hell hound's hot breath on the back of his neck.
Jack swallowed. His mouth was dry and sticky. He wasn't exactly afraid, but he had never had a hell hound get that close to him. He had seen some at a distance with their demon masters, and it had always seemed like a good idea to stay away from them. He didn't know why this one had sought him out, unless it thought he could help it find its way back home.
Careful not to make any sudden movements, Jack turned around to face the hell hound. It thrust its nose at him. He stumbled and fell on his rear, scraping his hands on the sidewalk. "Shit," he said.
The hell hound whined and lowered its head. Its tail was between its legs, and it looked at Jack with sad, blood-red puppy-dog eyes.
Jack heard a door bang open behind him. Both he and the puppy flinched. "Jack," the principal, Mr. Tunstall, said. "Jack, don't move. Animals can sense when you're afraid. If you're afraid, you'll only make him more nervous, and he might attack you. Just stay as still as you can. Animal control is on the way. You're being very brave, Jack. You're doing great."
Jack could hear Mr. Tunstall thinking, Why the hell didn't he get inside when he had the chance? What the fuck is wrong with that boy? Goddamn, now I'm gonna have to call his folks. Great, just fucking great.
The puppy shifted its weight between its front paws and kept whining.
"You're not gonna attack me, are you?" Jack asked.
It looked at him. It didn't answer. It seemed to be thinking something, but Jack couldn't make sense out of it.
Jack sat up straight. When the puppy didn't flinch at his movement, he held one hand out to it.
"Jack," Mr. Tunstall said. "What are you doing? Jack, that's a very dangerous animal. You shouldn't be doing that."
The puppy backed off a few steps, growling.
"Don't listen to him," Jack said. "I know you're not dangerous. You're lost, aren't you?"
The puppy let out a long, sad whine and then eased its nose towards Jack's hand. It hesitated when Mr. Tunstall shouted and the crowd around the door began to murmur.
"It's okay," Jack said. "I won't let them hurt you. I wanna help you."
The puppy sniffed Jack's hand and wagged its tail, still uncertain. Jack was patient. It only took a few more seconds for the puppy to decide that Jack was its friend. It lunged forward and began to lick his face. The crowd shrieked and gasped, but Jack and the hell hound paid them no attention.
Jack knew it was a really bad idea to make friends with a hell hound, puppy or not. Things were already bad enough for him with the ghosts and all, and trying to be normal didn't work. He was lucky he was still allowed to attend a regular school, but he had a feeling that, after this, no matter how it ended, his life was going to change.
He scratched the puppy behind its ears. It leaned its head into his hand and grumbled if he tried to stop. While it was distracted with the ear scratching, Jack used his free hand to feel for a collar. He wasn't sure why he thought a hell hound would be wearing a collar so he was surprised when he found one -- a thick leather collar with smooth metal studs along the edges. It was exactly the kind of collar a hell hound puppy ought to have. It wouldn't get a collar with big nasty metal spikes on it until it was a little older. Attached to the collar, Jack felt a short length of a nylon leash, frayed at the end.
"You need to get back to your master," Jack said. "Come on, dog. Let's go."
The puppy barked. Jack stood up and looked around, wondering which way to go.
A white truck marked Animal Control pulled up, and two mean-looking men rolled out of it. They both had rifles. Jack wasn't sure if the ammunition was bullets or tranquilizers. The hell hound hunched up its massive shoulders and growled.
"Run, Jack!" Mr. Tunstall shouted. "Run now! Get away from that thing!"
"Come on, dog," Jack said. "This way. Follow me."
The hell hound stood its ground between Jack and the men with the rifles.
"No, don't protect me, damn it. They're gonna hurt you. We have to run. Come on." Jack grabbed the frayed end of the leash and tugged. The puppy yelped. Jack started to run when it looked at him, and it followed.
"Holy fucking hell," Mr. Tunstall muttered. "That boy's insane."
Normally, at least one of the teachers nearby would have swatted Mr. Tunstall's arm and reprimanded him for using such language in front of children. No one did that time. They were all thinking the same thing.
"Mrs. Greyson, is Jack gonna die?" one of Jack's classmates asked.
Mrs. Greyson was honestly surprised by the fact that Jack had made it to the age of twelve, but she didn't share that. "Of course not, Randy," she said. "The animal control men will take care of the dog."
"Is the dog gonna die?"
"The dog may be very, very sick, Randy. It might be better off dead."
"What if the dog attacks the animal control men and rips them up into little pieces and --"
"That's enough, Randy. Everything will be just fine. I promise." Mrs. Greyson looked at Mr. Tunstall for a little reassurance, but Mr. Tunstall was still staring slack-jawed at the spot where Jack and the hell hound had been.
Jack ran as fast as he could away from the school. The hell hound bounded behind him, pacing itself so it wouldn't get ahead of him and could turn to attack the animal control men without much fuss. The animal control men didn't bother to follow. Jack was taking paths through the wooded area behind the school that grown up, flabby, lazy men couldn't follow.
When Jack stopped running, he and the hell hound puppy were only a few streets away in the upscale subdivision behind Sandusky. It felt like they had come much further. The puppy poked its nose at Jack's neck as he tried to catch his breath. He put his arm around its neck to make it stop, and it licked his face.
"Dumb dog," he said. "You better stop trying to run away. You're gonna get hurt."
The puppy barked at him.
"Do you live here?"
It kept licking his face and trying to step on his feet. Jack figured it did live somewhere in that subdivision. It didn't seem nervous about its surroundings. Finding a demon in a place like that wasn't going to be hard at all.
"Come on, stupid. Let's find your house." Jack tugged at the frayed leash again, and the hell hound followed him.
He hadn't walked very far when a car rolled past, squealed to a stop and released a girl about Jack's age. Except she wasn't really a girl. She was a demon.
"Pillows!" she shouted.
The puppy abandoned Jack for the girl.
"Pillows?" Jack asked.
The demon girl's mother got out of the car and walked up to Jack. "Did you find Pillows?" she asked.
"Um ... sorta," Jack said. "He found me."
"But you're ... human."
"Are you ..." She looked around to make sure no one was nearby and then finished in a whisper, "... psychic?"
"I'm so sorry."
Jack looked down at his feet.
"Thank you for bringing Pillows back."
"Allie, tell the nice young man thank you."
"Thank you so much!" Allie said. She rushed at Jack and hugged him. He tried to squirm out of her arms. She kissed his cheek before she let go of him.
Jack rubbed at his cheek as if Allie's lips had somehow branded him. "I noticed that the leash was broken," he said. "You might want to use something stronger."
"But it was pink," Allie said. "I thought it was pretty."
Allie's mom shook her head.
Jack didn't understand girls at all.
"What was your name again?" Allie's mom asked.
"Jack Runner. I'll have to remember that. Can I give you a ride somewhere?"
"Back to the school, if you don't mind."
"Of course not. It's the least I could do."
There was quite a crowd gathered at Sandusky when Jack got back. A police officer was there. A television reporter was there. His parents were there, standing next to Mr. Tunstall and looking both angry and afraid. Jack had seen them look that way too often. He didn't want to get out of the car.
"Thanks again," Allie's mom said.
"No problem," Jack said. He unbuckled his seat belt and started to get out of the car. Allie's mom put her hand on his shoulder. He looked up at her. She looked sad. Her thoughts were sad.
"Be careful, Jack," she said.
He nodded and slipped out of the car.
After the initial round of near-arguments in Mr. Tunstall's office, everything was quiet around the Runner household for a few days. Jack knew what was coming. He hadn't been able to make them believe that the hell hound was just some extraordinarily large dog. As soon as he told the truth, everyone had gotten very quiet. It felt just like the air did right before a violent storm -- still and heavy and quivering right under the skin where it could be felt but not seen.
For the rest of the week, Jack avoided people at all costs. He came home from school, did his homework and hid in his room until dinner. When dinner was over, he went right back to his room. It didn't change anything. School was worse than ever. Even teachers were starting to call him Mad Jack. At least they didn't say that to his face, but he could hear them thinking it and talking amongst themselves about it. He got the feeling they didn't want him at their school any more than the students did. His older brother, Quinn, doubled his efforts to terrorize Jack at home. Jack tried not to let it get to him. He tried to be normal. He tried to keep himself from finding the demon woman and begging her to adopt him. The other shoe would drop sooner or later.
On Friday night, Jack saw no reason to change the routine of hiding, so he started to slip away from the dinner table when he had finished eating. Mom cleared her throat and looked at Dad. "Quinn, go to your room, please," Dad said.
"But Dad," Quinn said.
"Just go, please."
"Can I play video games in the den instead?"
"No. But you can take the console to your room, if you want."
"Okay." On his way out of the dining room, Quinn took the opportunity to punch Jack's arm. "Freak," he said.
"Quinn," Mom said. "In your room. Now. No video games."
"Go." She pointed him in the right direction.
Jack would have given almost anything to be told to go to his room at that moment.
Mom sat down at the table. "Jack, we need to talk to you about something," she said. "We ... we ... damn it, Norman, I can't ..." She looked at Dad with tears in her eyes.
Dad took her hand in his. "It's okay. We'll get through this together. What your mom is trying to say is that we're worried about you, son. Really, really worried. Bad things happen to people who have the same condition you do, and we don't want bad things to happen to you. So we've talked to some people about what we might be able to do to help you."
"What kind of bad things?" Jack asked.
Mom and Dad looked at each other. "Well ..." Mom said.
"You know what the Agency is, don't you?" Dad asked.
"I've heard about it," Jack said. Truth be told, no one really knew what the Agency was. The Agency was, supposedly, a branch of the FBI whose employees were specially trained to deal with the threat of ghosts, demons and psychics. Jack didn't know what they did with the ghosts and demons, but the Agency made psychics disappear. At least that was what parents told their children to scare them out of being psychic.
"We don't want you to get taken away by them," Mom said.
"We've arranged for you to see a psychiatrist who specializes in this kind of thing," Dad said. "His name is Dr. Lawson. He's very good."
"What if it doesn't work?" Jack asked.
"It'll work. He's very good. Your first session is Monday after school."
Jack usually looked forward to the Sunday family dinners at Grandma's house. He liked his aunt and his uncle, and he got along well with their daughter, Sterling. Sterling was quiet and strange and spent most of her time doing things with computers that were beyond Jack's comprehension. She was the only person who would play video games with Jack. Jack didn't like losing to her all the time, but she was nice about it, not like Quinn who would be obnoxious and remind Jack of his losses long after Jack had forgotten about them. After dinner, there were Grandma's stories to look forward to. She had all kinds of stories about the way Pale had been when she was a girl. She told stories about ghosts and people whose lives ended in tragedy. There were subtle things about Grandma's stories that Jack didn't think anyone understood but him. Grandma understood things about Jack that no one else did, so it seemed natural that she would try to use her stories to teach him. He wished she would just say that she was psychic, too, so that she didn't have to try to cover things up.
The Sunday before Jack's first session with Dr. Lawson felt to Jack like the last day before the end of the world. He sulked on the couch while everyone else seemed to be having a good time. Dad and Uncle Ryan were out on the back porch drinking beer. Quinn was shooting hoops in the driveway. Sterling was at the kitchen table, half reading a book, half paying attention to the cooking that was going on. Grandma left Mom and Aunt Yuki to fuss over whatever it was they were making and sat down on the couch beside Jack.
"What are you so sad about, Jack?" she asked.
Jack shrugged. "I'm not sad," he said.
"What's with the long face, then?"
"I don't wanna talk about it."
"Is it about what happened at school?"
"No. Sorta. I don't wanna go to the shrink."
"Because I don't wanna stop being psychic. If I hadn't been able to help the puppy, the animal control idiots woulda killed her, and then the demons woulda been pissed off and might have tried to hurt the animal control idiots. And then people would start hunting the demons down to kill them and then more demons would get pissed and more people would die then more demons would die and --"
"I see the point, Jack."
"I wanna help. That's the only way they'll ever leave me alone."
"Everything happens for a reason. Maybe the shrink has good things to say. Maybe he can help you learn something."
"They wanna cure me. Like it's some kinda disease. I don't feel sick."
"Talking to the doctor won't hurt you. Remember, you don't have to agree to anything he says."
"But what if they don't give me a choice?"
"You always have a choice."
"Why can't I just hide it like you do?"
"Would that be of any help to anyone?"
"What you have is too big to hide."
"So I'll never be normal. Everyone will pick on me for the rest of my life. I'll always be a freak."
"Just remember. Everything happens for a reason."
Grandma's cryptic advice didn't always help. Jack couldn't think of any reason for going to the psychiatrist that didn't involve some kind of cure, and nothing good was going to come of trying to cure him of his powers.
School might have been absolute hell on Monday. Jack didn't notice. He was too busy worrying about seeing Dr. Lawson. Sometimes, Jack could see the future. What he saw was never very clear, and more often than not, he saw some symbolic representation of events rather than events themselves. This was how he knew that he was going to die young. It wasn't a scary thing, though. It was like there was a traffic light on the metaphorical path of his life that would always be red. He would come to the light one day and stop. The light would never turn green, and being a law abiding citizen, he would never run the red light. He couldn't help but think that going to the psychiatrist was a step or two closer to the red light.
He contemplated ways to get out of going. If he feigned illness, Mom and Dad would reschedule. If he flat out refused to go, he would get in trouble. He could run away, but he was pretty sure they'd find him eventually. There was no escape. He would have to resort to not talking to Dr. Lawson.
... To be continued ...
-- Mel Trent