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Chapter 2 MISERY


"Of course I have nightmares-who doesn't?"

"Every night?"

"No."

"Most nights?"

A pause. "No."

"But a lot?"

I shrug and look away. I'm in Mr. Mauch's office. Misery Mauch-the school counsellor. He holds court a few times a week. Chats with students who are struggling with homework, peer pressure, pushy parents. Normal kids with normal problems. And then there's me.

Misery loves sitting down for a warts'n'all session with me.

Why wouldn't he? Everyone here knows the Grubbs Grady story-parents and sister slaughtered in front of him... long months locked up in a nuthouse ("incarcerated in a facility for the temporarily disturbed," Misery puts it)... came to Carcery Vale to live in a spooky old house with his uncle Dervish... that uncle lost his marbles soon after... Grubbs played nurse for a year until he recovered... went to a movie set with Dervish and his friend Bill-E Spleen months later... witnessed the tragic deaths of hundreds of people when a disastrous fire burnt the set to the ground.

With a history like that, I'm a dinosaur-sized bone for every psychiatric dog within a hundred kilometre radius!

"Would you like to tell me about your dreams, Grubitsch?" Misery asks.

"No."

"Are you sure?"

I feel like laughing but don't. Misery's harmless. It can't be much fun, trekking around his small cache of schools, dealing with the same boring teenage problems day after day, year after year. If I was in his shoes, I'd be itching to get my hands on a juicily messed-up student like me too.

"Grubitsch?" Misery prods after a few seconds of silence.

"Hmm?"

"Telling me about your dreams might help. A problem shared is a problem halved."

I almost respond with, "What's a clich�� shared?" but again I hold my tongue. I'd ruin Misery's day if I cut him down like that. Might reduce him to tears.

"They're not much of a problem, sir," I say instead, trying to wind the session down. I'm missing physics and I quite like that subject.

"Please, Grubitsch, call me William."

"Sorry, sir-I mean, William."

Misery smiles big, as if he's made a breakthrough. "The nightmares must be a problem if they're not going away," he presses gently. "If you told me, perhaps we could find a way to stop them."

"I don't think so," I respond, a bit sharper than I meant. He's talking about stuff which is way over his head. I don't mind a school counsellor showing interest in me but I dislike the way he's acting like a second-rate mind-sleuth, clumsily trying to draw out my secrets.

"I didn't mean to offend you, Grubitsch," Misery says quickly, realising he's overstepped the mark.

"To be honest, sir," I say stiffly, "I don't think you're qualified to discuss matters like this."

"No, no, of course not," Misery agrees, his features sorrowing up. "I don't want to pretend to be something I'm not. I apologise if I gave that impression. I only thought, if you were in the mood to talk, it might help. It might be a beginning. Of course it's not my... I'm under no illusion... as you say, I'm not qualified to..." He mutters to a halt.

"Don't have a breakdown," I laugh, feeling guilty. "It's no biggie. I just don't want to talk about my dreams to anyone. Not right now."

Misery gulps, nods briskly, then says I can go. Tells me he'll be back next week but won't ask to see me. He'll give me some breathing space. Maybe in a month or two he'll call me in again, to "shoot the breeze".

I hesitate at the door, not wanting to leave him on such a down note-his head's bowed over his notes and he looks like he's fighting back sniffles.

"Mr. Mau-William." He looks up curiously. "Next time, if you want, you can call me Grubbs."

"Grubbs?" he repeats uncertainly.

"It's what my friends call me."

"Oh," he says and his face lights up like he's won the jackpot.

I slip out, masking a smile. School counsellors-child's play!

Lunch. Loch wants to know what I was talking with Misery about.

"The size of your brain," I tell him. "We wondered how small it was."

"Don't worry about the size of my brain," Loch snorts. "My brain's fine. A lot healthier than your pea of a think-tank."

"How big is a brain?" Charlie asks. Everyone stares at him. "I mean, does it fill the whole of the head?" He starts poking his skull, searching for soft spots.

"In your case, I doubt it," Loch says. "You've probably got enough empty space in there to hold a football."

Laughter all round. Even Charlie laughs. He's used to being the butt of our jokes. He doesn't mind. They're always light-hearted. Everyone likes Charlie Rail. He's too nice to get vicious on.

Six of us, sheltering from rain in a doorway overlooking the football quad. The usual pack of barbarians are kicking the life out of a tired old ball-and each other-on the quad, oblivious to the rain.

My group-me, Loch, Charlie, Frank, Leon and Mary. Loch and I stand a head or more above any of the others. We're the biggest pair of lunks in our school, which is what drew us to each other in the first place. Loch's a wrestler. He wanted me to be his partner, so he became my friend. I held out for a long time-real wrestling's nothing like the stuff on TV, very calculated and unspectacular-but he eventually persuaded me to give it a go. I'm not much good, and don't get a real kick out of it, but to keep Loch happy I travel to a few meets every month and get down'n'sweaty on the mats.

"I think Misery's sexy in an older-man kind of way," Mary says to a chorus of astonished jeers and catcalls.

"You've got the hots for Mauch?" Leon gasps, faking a heart attack.

"No," Mary says coolly. "I just think he's sexy. I bet women are all over him outside school hours."

The laughter dies away and the five testosteronetastic guys in the group look at each other uncertainly. It's not something we'd admit to, but girls our age know a hell of a lot more about the adult world than we do. Adults operate differently. It's easy to tell the winners and losers in school, the cools and geeks. But the world beyond is puzzlesome. Professional sportsmen are obviously cool, as are actors, pop stars, etc. But what about normal guys? What makes an ordinary man attractive to a woman? I don't know. But if Misery Mauch has it, we could all be in trouble later on. By their frowns, I know the others are thinking exactly the same.

While we're trying to come to terms with a world where Misery Mauch is a sex god, Reni and Shannon stroll up, arms linked, laughing at some private joke.

"I was just telling the boys," Mary says, "how sexy Mr. Mauch is."

"William?" Reni says, nodding thoughtfully. "He's a dish."

"William?" Loch barks at his sister.

"That's what he told me to call him."

"I didn't know you'd been going for counselling," Loch growls.

"There's a lot you don't know about me," Reni says sultrily, then raises an eyebrow at Shannon. "William Mauch-dull or dishy?"

"Deep-pan dishy," Shannon says seriously-then laughs. "I'm sorry! Your faces!"

"Swine," Leon snarls as the other girls squeal along with Shannon. "That wasn't funny."

"It was hilarious," Reni counters, crying with laughter. "You lot are so easy to wind up. Imagine Misery Mauch as eye-candy!" She laughs even harder.

"Here," I say, pulling out a handkerchief and handing it to Reni.

Reni smiles sweetly and dabs at her cheeks with the hankie. Four sets of lips immediately purse-wolf whistles galore.

"Grubbs and Reni sitting in a tree..." sings Frank.

"Get stuffed," I grunt and coolly retrieve my handkerchief from Reni-cue more whistles.

Lunch flies by as it usually does. So much to talk about-friends, teachers, homework, TV, movies, computer games, music, wrestling, the size of brains. Robbie McCarthy joins us midway through. He's not a regular member of the gang but he's been cuddling up to Mary recently so he's had to spend time with the rest of us.

I joke around with Reni a lot. The handkerchief was especially for her. One of Dervish's. I use tissues, like everybody else who isn't living in the Middle Ages. I've been carrying it around for a week, waiting for a chance to present it to her. Corny, and done as a joke-but half serious too. A chance to share a smile and a sweet look.

Reni knows I fancy her. And I think she's hot for the Grubbster. But I've not had much experience in things like this. There's every chance I've read the signals wrong. I won't know for sure until I find the guts to put an arm around her and try for a kiss, but I think the odds are in my favour.

Loch's cool with it. I've seen how he is with other guys who put the moves on Reni-he puffs himself out to look even bigger than he already is and growls like a bear, scaring them away. If Reni was keen on any of them, she'd tell him to back off. But most of the time she lets him play the protective big brother and even encourages it.

It's important to have Loch's approval. He's my best friend. You don't try to date your best friend's sister without his permission. It just isn't done.

Towards the end of lunch, a small, chubby boy with a lazy left eye shuffles over and I feel a stab of guilt, much stronger than the pang I felt in Misery Mauch's office.

"Hi Grubbs," Bill-E says, smiling hopefully.

"Hi," I grunt.

"Hey, Bill-E! How's my man?" Loch exclaims and sticks his hand out. Bill-E extends his own hand automatically, but Loch whips his away, puts his thumb on his nose, sticks his tongue out and wiggles his fingers. "Sucker!"

Bill-E flushes but manages a sick grin and lowers his hand sheepishly.

"Very mature," Reni says drily, rolling her eyes at her brother.

"The shrimp doesn't mind, do you, Spleen?" Loch chortles, grabbing Bill-E's head in a wrestling lock.

"No," Bill-E says, voice muffled. Loch releases Bill-E and ruffles his hair. Bill-E's still smiling but the smile's very strained and his face is fire engine red. "How you doing, Grubbs?"

"Not bad. You?"

"OK."

We smile awkwardly at each other. The rest of the group stare at us for a second. Then normal conversation resumes, only we're cut out of it.

"Doing anything this weekend?" Bill-E asks.

"Not a lot. Maybe practising some wrestling moves with Loch."

"Oh. I was thinking of coming over to watch some movies... if that's OK..."

"Hell, you don't have to ask." I laugh uneasily. "You can drop in any time you want. It's your house as much as mine."

"Coolio!" Bill-E's smile resumes its normal shape. "You want to watch a movie with me?"

"Maybe. But I might have to go over to Loch's and practise. You know."

"Yeah," Bill-E says quietly. "I know."

The bell rings and everyone files back to class. Hundreds of kids groaning, shouting, laughing. Bill-E heads off in his own direction. He doesn't say goodbye. I watch him walk alone and lonely in the crowd and I feel twisted and vile, like something a maggot would crawl out of its way to avoid.

Bill-E Spleen was my best friend before Loch Gossel hit the scene. When I moved here after my parents' death and my spell in the nuthouse, he made me feel like I wasn't all by myself in the world. He helped me establish a life again. Settled me in at school, kept me company during lunch when everybody else was wary of me. Fought by my side on the Slawter film set-and it wasn't fire we had to contend with. Tried to help when my nightmares kicked back in hard not long afterwards, even though his own mind was in turmoil.

How do I repay him? By abandoning him for the friendship of Loch, Reni and our little group. Cutting him loose. Being a Judas.

It's wrong but it's the way things go. When an old friend doesn't fit in with your new pals, you cut him loose. It's the law of school. I've dumped other friends in the past, and several have done it to me. The difference here is that Bill-E's my half-brother. Even though he doesn't know it.

Chemistry. I usually find it interesting but this afternoon I can't concentrate. I keep thinking about Bill-E. I didn't mean to give him the big brush-off. When I first met Loch, I had time for Bill-E. I'd only see Loch occasionally after school. I still hung out with Bill-E a lot.

That gradually changed. Loch began inviting me around to his house and coming over to mine. Through Loch I became friends with Frank Martin, Charlie Rail and Leon Penn. And through them I got to know Shannon Campbell and Mary Hayes-and, of course, Reni.

Reni makes me forget about Bill-E for a few minutes. Daydreaming about her shoulder-length auburn hair, long eyelashes, light brown eyes, her curves... She's not perfect by any means-big and sturdy like her brother, with a ski-slope of a nose-but everybody thinks she's one of the hottest girls in our school.

I shake my head to stop thinking about Reni and my thoughts drift back to Bill-E. All those new friends made demands. It was exciting to be accepted by them, included in their conversation, treated as an equal. It had been a long time since I was part of a crowd. I hadn't realised how much that mattered to me or how much I'd missed it.

I wanted Bill-E to hang out with us but he just didn't fit in. I'm not sure why. He's younger than most of us-he started school a year early-but Leon isn't a lot older than him. He's small, but Frank's no giant either. He uses corny words like "Coolio!" but Robbie's favourite exclamation is the seriously uncool "Radical!" He has a lazy left eye, but Charlie has buck teeth, Shannon has an ugly facial mole, I'm built like the Hulk... We're all a bit odd, one way or another.

Bill-E is clever, funny, a much better talker than me. But he never found a niche at school. I didn't realise it when I first started. Bill-E seemed like the most normal kid around. I knew he didn't have a lot of friends but I was certain he fit in more than I did.

After a while I began to notice things. Like how Bill-E never went to anybody's house after school. How people made jokes about him and aped him when he said things like "Coolio!" How he was bullied by boys like Loch Gossel.

I'm not blind to how Loch treats Bill-E. He teases him all the time, like with the fake hand-shake and head-lock today. It's different to the way he treats Charlie. Nastier. He embarrasses Bill-E in front of others, makes him feel small and unwanted.

I often thought of challenging Loch and the others who pick on Bill-E. If any of them hurt him, I'd have definitely taken them on. But teasing is harder to deal with. You can't punch a guy for being sarcastic to somebody... can you?

I'd have worsened the situation if I'd interfered, made Bill-E look like a weakling who couldn't stand up for himself. Besides, it wasn't so bad. His life wasn't a walking misery. And he always had me to cheer him up.

Class ends. English next. I walk to it by myself, quiet, thoughtful.

I feel ashamed. I should go up to Bill-E this afternoon. Invite him back to my place. Free up the weekend to be with him. Watch movies, eat popcorn, go searching for Lord Sheftree's buried treasure. Like we used to.

But I won't. Instead I'll just suffer the guilt, wait for it to pass, then let things go on as they have been.

Lousy, yeah, but that's the way it is. Misery Mauch wouldn't understand if I tried to explain, but I'm sure anyone else in the school-or any school in the world-would.

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