The Shortest Lifeline

“Will you just go!” his mom had pleaded, and not knowing what else to do, already sick with fear, Jared went.  He looked away from his stepdad sprawled on the sofa, his night’s booze stacked on the coffee table.  If his mom was lucky, Kevin would pass out where he lay.  If she wasn’t, he would start slapping and punching.  Jared’s skinny five-seven nerdhood couldn’t match Kevin’s six-foot brawn.

Outside, Jared hunched against the October drizzle that slicked back his hair and dampened the torn hoody.  He always wore a hoody – it hid the bruises.  Aimlessly, he walked and walked finally ending up in front of the rich houses. Kendall, the head cheerleader’s house glistened with orange lights, people wove in front of the windows, and music blasted.  Cold, wet and desperate, Jared went up the walk and rang the bell.

Kendall pulled the door open, her bright social smile fading at the drowned rat in front of her.  Jared lifted his bleak eyes to hers.  Silence, and then she pulled the door wider.  “C’mon in.”

He followed, head down, ignoring the sudden silence.  A moment later, Kendall pushed a hot drink in his hands.  “Lots of sugar and cream,” she said.  “Warm you up.”  She turned away then, and laughing, dimmed the lights and tied a red scarf around her head, gypsy style.  “Madame Kendalli is ready to tell your fortune, my friends!”

Laughter and noise resumed as Jared leaned against the wall, drank the hot, sweet coffee and dripped on the expensive rug.  By candlelight, Madame Kendalli shuffled cards, looked at palms, and uttered predictions in a gutteral voice that had the kids laughing and shrieking.

“What about your friend?” Steve, her boyfriend, demanded.  

She turned to Jared and smiled.  “Hey, I’ll tell your future.”

Tired of hiding, Jared pushed back his hood and came over.  The music suddenly ended and silence engulfed the room.  Kendall gazed thoughtfully at Jared’s face.  He hoped that she didn’t see the yellowing bruise on his cheekbone, but she dropped her eyes and took his hand. 

Tickling her finger around his palm, she intoned.  “Love.  Your heartline shows that you love much.  Head…” she flashed a grin at him, “we all know how smart you are.”  Jared felt a smile twitch his mouth.  “But your lifeline is too short.”  Her voice strained.  “Too short,” she whispered.

“Tough luck,” Steve clouted him on the shoulders.  “You’re going to die young.”

That was a signal for the lights to be turned up, the music to start again, and for Kendall’s hands and eyes to be pulled away.  Jared retreated to the shadows.  At midnight, Kendall’s parents shooed everyone out.

Back on the street, Jared’s breath misted before him, but the rain had stopped.  He walked slowly toward his house.  Die young.  Die young.  You’re going to die young.  The chant chipped into his mind.  Did she guess he’d thought about suicide?  He couldn’t stand the bruises, the endless fear.  But if he killed himself, his mom would be left alone with Kevin.  

He opened the door quietly.  The house was silent except for Kevin’s snores and farts. He found his mom in the kitchen holding an icepack over her face.  Cut lip, black eye, bruised cheek, stiff arm.

“Jared,” she whispered.  “I’m sorry.”

He turned away and went to his room.  For a long while he sat on his bed and thought about Kendall’s prophecy.  It was dumb. A joke.  But it felt inevitable.  He was going to die soon.  Because of Kevin.

Jared clenched his fists and strode into the living room.  Kevin was standing, bleary-eyed, scratching his belly.  Jared screamed and ran at the man, fists swinging.  Kevin tripped over the table and went down.  Jared was on top of him, pounding – pounding and pounding and pounding.  Whimpering, Kevin rolled over and began puking.  Jared sprang to his feet, hauled off and started kicking, in the butt, the ribs, the head.  

Finally Jared sagged against the wall.  Kevin pushed himself up on one elbow, grunting. Were there tears dripping down the bastard’s cheeks?

“My mother,” Jared gasped.  “Don’t ever touch my mother again.  Or I’ll kill you.”

He went to his room and threw himself back on the bed.  He stared at his palms and began laughing – laughing until he rolled off the bed.  All the lines on his hands were long and strong.