A SMELL that wasn’t there before filled the bathroom.
JJ drew in a deep breath, trying to match the scent to anything that might already exist in his short memory. It was a difficult scent to describe: like pine trees, but not the real ones in his backyard. More like the smell of the stuff his father used to clean the kitchen floor.
He tried to push off the sudden sense of apprehension that filled him; who cared if someone else had also come into the restroom? This was his town, the tiny world he had spent his entire five years in, and there was a good chance he knew whoever else had just joined him.
Even if he didn’t know anyone who went around smelling like pine trees.
JJ took a few breaths and flushed the toilet, eager to get back to the movie and his parents.
As he shoved the door of the stall open, though, the scent grew stronger. The person who had brought the scent in with him—a man—was facing the wall across the room. He was wearing a backpack and hugging his arms to his chest.
“I did it… I did it,” the man whispered. “I finally did it.”
JJ moved to the sinks, more eager than ever to return to the comforting gaze of his mother. But the noise of his sneakers against the tile alerted the man to JJ’s presence, and now the stranger was turning around to face him.
It was the oddest sensation to only be able to see certain details of a person: blue jeans, a red long-sleeve shirt. And then a detail so clear it almost seemed to be the only thing JJ could see: the outline of a long and winding paintbrush, tattooed on the man’s hand, snaking down from just below his thumb to where it disappeared beneath the cuff of his shirt.
But nothing else. No other details were there. The man was faceless. The color of hair was… what was it? It was as if it had never been there.
Then JJ could see nothing, and all he could hear was the man shouting. Something about how JJ shouldn’t be there, and he couldn’t know, and it wasn’t time yet….
The pain began then. Horrible, burning, pain, and JJ knew he was screaming, but he couldn’t hear himself over the roaring in his ears. He needed to find the door, the door, where was the door—
JACOB JASPER Jones woke up sweating, twisted into a trap of sheets and blankets. He frantically cast his eyes around the walls of his bedroom, looking for anything that would remind him he was not in that restroom again. There was the Modest Mouse poster, his bookshelf, the old dresser that had once belonged to his aunt—yes, he was safe.
Safe from what? Or who?
JJ quietly wrestled with the covers, thankful that he wasn’t a screamer and didn’t seem to have woken Aunt Maggie up. If it was up to JJ, Maggie would never know that JJ was having dreams about that day again.
They’d started about a month ago. Before then JJ had never dreamed anything specific about the fire. The nightmares were always vague and mushy, filled with flames and noise and not much else.
Not like this dream. This dream was clear and specific and so real it was as though JJ was reenacting every detail from that day. Right up until the end, when the faceless man turned and everything went black.
It was so vivid that JJ was starting to think it might be more than just a dream. That it might be a memory.
JJ’d never remembered much from that day. In fact, when the police had questioned him years earlier, he hadn’t really been able to tell them anything. They’d blamed “psychological trauma” and wondered if JJ had possibly witnessed the setting of the second fire in the restroom, or if he’d just been unlucky enough to be in a stall when it happened.
Now JJ couldn’t decide if this dream was his memory coming back or his mind playing sick tricks on him.
He lowered himself down to peer under the mattress of the lower bunk bed and pull out the bottle of cheap whiskey that Lewis had gotten some college student to buy for them a few weeks ago. Midway through his third swig, JJ finally felt a sense of calm taking over his body, and he wondered, not for the first time, what he should do. He could go to the police, tell them that maybe he had some new information—only what new information did he really have? That he was dreaming of a faceless person with a tattoo?
Another swig. The tattoo. JJ knew it might be the most important part of the dream. It was so clear in his mind.
But what if it wasn’t a memory? What if it was just something JJ’s head was creating? Did people go to the police about dreams?
The calm that the whiskey had brought on was starting to fade, and JJ decided to take a walk. He knew just where he needed to go.
JJ PEERED at the walls of the police station, reading the signs to keep his attention focused on something other than his stomach, which was feeling the effects of the whiskey. He hoped that by keeping his concentration on the signs, he might be able to keep his dinner where it was.
It was either there or on the bench next to him. Handcuffed as JJ was, there didn’t appear to be many other places it could go.
He was starting to think he should have decided to just come to the police about the dream. Because at least then he’d be here of his own free will.
“Jacob Jones?” The woman above him definitely sounded irritated. JJ couldn’t really blame her. After all, there had to be more exciting cases out there than dealing with a fifteen-year-old juvenile delinquent.
“Whatever. Your aunt’s waiting for you in the hallway.” She uncuffed him from the bench, and JJ unconsciously rubbed his hands around his sore wrists. So handcuffs really were as annoying as they looked in the movies.
In the hallway stood Aunt Maggie, looking every bit as irritated as the cop. She barely made eye contact with JJ before she turned and swept out of the station. JJ followed, not sure exactly how low to hang his head. He felt a little guilty, but not all that much—after all, what he had done was barely a crime. So he’d trespassed when he’d climbed on top of the movie theater. Big deal. He hadn’t broken anything, or coveted, or violated any of the other commandments. No harm, no foul.
Still, he had a feeling that wasn’t what Aunt Maggie wanted to hear. He tried to look at least a little contrite.
They were in the car before she spoke to him. “You. Are. In. Big. Trouble.”
Duh. He’d been arrested. Even if Aunt Maggie hadn’t been upset, which obviously wasn’t turning out to be the case, JJ was pretty sure the arrest itself was going to be an issue.
“Arrested. For trespassing. That will go on your record. Unless I can find some saintlike lawyer to deal with you and your incessant need to give me an early heart attack. Not to mention that you snuck out of the house at one o’clock in the morning. You are in big trouble.”
She didn’t say anything the rest of the way home. After unlocking the door and letting them both inside, she stared at him for a few seconds in the dark kitchen before she spoke again.
“I am going to bed. You are too. When you wake up, you will immediately begin making this house sparkle. That’s how clean it will be. Then we’ll decide when, if ever, you will leave the house again.”
Maggie stormed off to her bedroom and slammed the door.
JJ sighed and moved toward his room, wondering if he’d left anything in that whiskey bottle.
HE WAS awake early the next day, with only twinges of a hangover. He hadn’t been drunk enough to do major damage. JJ moved toward the shower and wondered how seriously he should take Maggie’s cleaning directive.
It was a toss-up, really. Aunt Maggie’s bark was often worse than her bite, and she might not be so angry after a good night’s sleep. Maybe JJ could get away with just making her breakfast.
You were arrested, moron, he reminded himself. This probably wasn’t going to go over quite as easily as the time he’d put the dead frogs from the science lab all over the tables in the cafeteria. At least he’d been able to write that off as a political protest.
JJ decided to make breakfast while he was cleaning the kitchen. Maybe looking like he was trying to apologize would somehow get him out of the rest of the job.
Breakfast was definitely the easiest meal to make. JJ liked cooking. He enjoyed taking random ingredients and forming them into something. He liked eating, and it was fun experimenting with different flavors to see what odd combinations tasted good.
This morning he thought he’d try orange-banana waffles. He swept up the kitchen while the batter was sitting and did the dishes as his eggs cooked and the bacon hissed in the pan. He had a plate sitting out for Maggie and was cutting up melon for a fruit salad when she came in.
“Making amends? Or just trying to get out of the rest of the cleaning?” she asked dryly.
JJ opened his mouth to respond, but she cut him off quickly. “Honestly, it smells so good I don’t really care. Good diversion, kid.” She settled into her seat and poured syrup onto her waffles. “Nice flavor,” she said after the first bite. “Very interesting.”
JJ brought the fruit he was cutting over to the table and sat down next to her. He knew he should say something, and he thought it should probably begin with “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Maggie shook her head. “No you’re not.”
JJ pretended to concentrate on the melon. “I’m sorry you’re pissed. I’m sorry all I do is piss you off.”
“You often do.” Maggie took a sip of juice. “We both know you’re only apologizing right now because it’s what your dad would have told you to do. We both know he didn’t quite make it to all the lessons of right and wrong, or you wouldn’t have done what you did last night.”
JJ scowled a little. Anyone else saying that about his dad would already have a bruise somewhere, but Maggie played by different rules. JJ’s dad had been her brother.
“I’m here to tell you that your father would be very disappointed, Jacob Jasper.”
JJ turned away. “That’s a low blow, Aunt Mag. I didn’t do anything that bad last night. I just wanted to go to the top of the theater. I just wanted to….” He stopped. What had he been trying to do? He wasn’t sure. All he knew was that somewhere in the buzzy haze of the whiskey, JJ had thought visiting the theater would give him a better idea of what to do about that stupid dream.
He was just sitting there—not hurting anyone—when someone had come up behind him. Then the handcuffs had come out.
Maggie sighed and took a bite of egg. “Well cooked.” She swallowed. “Look, hon, I know that you trespassing on the top of the theater wasn’t exactly a coincidence. I get that, I really do. I realize that you were probably not out to cause trouble when you climbed up there last night. The problem, JJ, is that you usually aren’t… but trouble comes anyway. We’re going to have to find a lawyer. There will be consequences for this.”
JJ sliced into an orange. “I know.”
“JJ, I love you. So much. But you can’t ride on the coattails of your pain your whole life. Plenty of kids have been through worse. Plenty of kids are going through worse. Plenty of kids are not getting their aunts called to police stations at two a.m. because they can’t control their own behaviors. Do you know what Darryl will say when she hears about this? Do you know how long it will be before I’ll be able to get you and Penny together again?”
Anger cut through JJ’s system. “She’s my sister, Maggie!”
“And she’s my niece. But when Darryl adopted her, I gave up my rights to play either card. And I made a deal with Darryl that I’d tell her about any trouble you got into. You know I’m going to have to tell Darryl about this, and you know Darryl isn’t going to like it. JJ, she kept Penny away for a month that time you started a food fight in eighth grade. How do you think she’ll respond to you getting arrested for trespassing?”
“God, I hate her!” JJ snarled the words as he slammed the knife through the orange, and Maggie gasped.
Looking down, JJ saw blood splashing through the bowl of Maggie’s fruit salad. Suddenly he felt very light-headed, and he noticed more blood gushing from a cut in the side of his left hand before he felt the wave of pain there. “I missed the orange,” he mumbled.
Maggie pulled him out of his chair, wrapping his hand in a dish towel that immediately stained pink. “Let’s go!” she urged.
IT DIDN’T take JJ long to figure out that it wasn’t a bad idea to be pouring blood out of your system when you walked into an emergency room. Judging by the amount of people there, they might have been waiting all day—but the admitting nurse took one look at the bright red towel wrapped around JJ’s hand and the glazed expression in his eyes and sent them to a room immediately.
It wasn’t really a room, of course. More like a bunch of beds lined up next to each other. JJ lay down on the bed the nurse indicated, and she started asking Maggie a million questions about JJ’s allergies and how he’d cut himself. Then there was a whole lot of silent waiting while Maggie paced and JJ tried not to stare at his hand.
The doctor who finally approached them wasn’t young. JJ thought he was probably in his early forties, right around the age JJ’s father would have been. He was tall, with dark blond hair and a nose that was a little bigger than the rest of his face. He was smiling widely. And even though he didn’t look anything like Jasper Jones, JJ felt the twinge of his father’s absence that sometimes crept up on him.
“Hello! I’m Dr. Ben. I hear this one’s a gusher!” Dr. Ben slowly unwrapped the towel from JJ’s hand and sucked in his breath a little. “Not wide, but deep. How did you do this?”
JJ still felt woozy, and he wondered briefly if this was just another dream. “I was making breakfast. I missed the orange.”
The doctor shook his head. “Did you lay in the knife after you missed? It looks like you just missed a vein here. Lucky kid.” He removed the towel and replaced it with a large bandage. “No worries, though. I’ve seen worse. We’ll stitch you right up and have you back at the fruit in no time.”
Maggie sighed with relief. “I swear, JJ, I’m getting a whole lot closer to that heart attack I was talking about last night.” JJ squirmed, not sure how to respond to that, but the doctor laughed.
“Ma’am, you look paler than he does. Might I suggest a little coffee from the cafeteria while I stitch him up? I’m not sure it will do your heart good to watch the process.”
Maggie nodded eagerly. “Will you be okay, JJ?”
JJ couldn’t imagine anything better than her leaving. “Get some coffee, Aunt Mags. I’ll be fine.”
Maggie left, and JJ settled back against the pillow while the doctor found some kind of kit. He gave JJ a shot, and then JJ could hardly feel his hand. It felt like an out-of-body experience as he watched the doctor move the needle in and out of his skin like it was a quilt the guy was working on.
“You hurt yourself a lot?” Dr. Ben asked.
“I wondered if you do things like this a lot. You seem to have a pretty high pain threshold.”
JJ winced. He’d heard that before. Ten years before, actually. “I’ve never cut myself like that before. I just… I almost didn’t feel it all that much.” JJ closed his eyes and leaned back against the bed, trying not to think about the last doctor who had said those words, as he had examined the burns tracing across the back of JJ’s small legs.
“Everything okay?” Dr. Ben asked. JJ figured he’d noticed the wince.
“Just let me know if you start to feel anything.”
JJ opened one eye. “Sure. So, why are you called Dr. Ben, anyway? That doesn’t sound very professional.”
Dr. Ben chuckled. “I’m a pediatrician. I’m just doing a stint in the ER right now to help out. My real last name is Peragena, and most kids have problems with that.”
“Yep. It works. So, is your aunt gonna make it? She looked pretty white.”
JJ sighed. “I’m not the easiest person to live with. She’s a wedding photographer though, so I think she deals with worse at work.” JJ considered that for a minute. Aunt Mags never got a break. Demanding brides all day, a juvenile delinquent at home….
“You live with her?”
“Yeah.” JJ hoped Dr. Ben wouldn’t ask where his parents were. It was always an awkward question, because JJ hated to answer it. Most of the time he stayed silent while the other person waited for a response. He and a stubborn shrink had once stared each other down for ten minutes over that question. Finally the shrink gave up.
Dr. Ben didn’t say anything, though. He finished up the stitches and wrapped gauze around JJ’s hand before giving him a quick lecture about the proper care of suture wounds. Aunt Maggie came back just as he was finishing up.
“I think Frankenstein here will be fine,” Dr. Ben told her. “I’m going to have him rest here for a bit, though, just to make sure we don’t need to add more blood to his system. That work for you, Frank?”
JJ rolled his eyes. Sometimes when adults were trying to be funny they just ended up sounding so… stupid. “Sure, Dr. Ben.”
JJ closed his eyes again. At least he’d have a break before Maggie started yelling at him again.
“…It’s never been easy, but this last year or so has been particularly difficult. He isn’t a bad kid, he isn’t. He’s just always into something! There was the frog incident, and he and his friends stole all of the hand sanitizer out of the front office at school, and then I caught him smoking cigarettes in the backyard. I know he’s drinking; I smell it on him from time to time. I practically have to lock him in the house these days. Last night I think he’s gone to bed, and the next thing I know he’s at the police station. I’m at my wit’s end. My brother would kill me if he knew what I was doing to his kid.”
JJ rubbed his eyes groggily. He was on the bed at the hospital, and he had a little more feeling back in his sore hand. He could actually feel it throb now. How long had he been asleep? And was that Maggie talking about him?
“I’m sorry to unload like this, doctor, but clearly I’m reaching the level of needing medical help. The school has tried, but their psychologist can’t even get JJ to talk to her. They just keep telling me I’m doing the right thing to keep on him at home, and they’ll keep on him at school. They keep telling me he’ll ‘straighten out’ eventually. I don’t even know what that means anymore.”
JJ rolled his eyes. The school psychologist was an idiot, just like all the other shrinks Maggie had made him see over the years. This one had even tried to get to him draw pictures. What was he, six?
“Now the whole thing is drawing blood. We were arguing this morning about what he’s doing to his relationship with his sister, and he got angry and distracted and nearly took his hand off! I swear to you, my brother is rolling over in his grave right now.”
Yeah, JJ had heard that before—he was a huge disappointment, and his parents would be horrified if they could see all the poor choices he was making… blah blah blah. He’d already heard it from Maggie at breakfast, and he’d been hearing it from people his whole life. Still, JJ couldn’t help but notice that a lump the size of a cherry rose into his throat at the phrase “rolling over in his grave.”
“Ms. Dunsmore, I think you’re being too hard on yourself. You’re doing the best you can. How long have you been JJ’s legal guardian?”
“They died when he was five. I’ve had JJ since he was six… nine years, I guess.”
“Nine years is amazing! In nine years he’s a relatively normal teenage boy. You think you’re the first woman to have a troublemaking fifteen-year-old in her house?”
“He isn’t normal, though. He’s so angry, Dr. Ben. I see it. I see it in the way he looks at me when he’s done something wrong. Like the world owes him anyway, and this is just his way of trying to even the score. Not with me, I don’t think… with God.”
Well, that was just dumb. There sure was somebody JJ would love to settle a score with. But it wasn’t God.
“Ms. Dunsmore, do you mind if I ask how JJ’s parents died?”
The lump welled up in JJ’s throat again. If this had been his conversation, here the room would have gone completely silent. But Aunt Maggie wasn’t him.
“They were killed in the Bijou Street Theater fire, Dr. Ben. JJ was with them. He was very lucky and managed to make it out alive.”
A deep, heavy silence—the kind that JJ would normally have created—fell. Only this time it was apparently being created by Dr. Ben.
“Dr. Ben? Are you all right?”
It sounded like Dr. Ben was deeply clearing his throat. “I’m fine, Ms. Dunsmore. Just a little caught off guard.”
“You’re sure you’re okay?”
“I am; I’m fine. My daughter passed away in that fire. I just haven’t heard anyone mention it in quite some time.”
“Oh!” JJ could hear Maggie’s sharp intake of breath. “I’m so sorry. I sometimes wish we kept more distance from it as well. We really never have, though. It’s mentioned almost every day at our house. I’m sorry I brought it up.”
“No, no. It’s fine. Maybe it’s good for JJ that it’s not a taboo subject in your household.”
“Maybe. Sometimes I wonder if we talk about it entirely too much. It’s not something we can just put in the backs of our minds, though. Not with JJ’s legs.”
Even hidden behind the curtain, JJ squirmed uncomfortably as Dr. Ben asked his next question: “JJ’s legs?”
“Yes. He was in the theater’s restroom that day. He made it out alive, but his legs caught on fire. He has horrendous scar tissue up and down his calves.”
No one spoke for a few moments after that, and JJ thought they had walked away from the curtain, when he suddenly heard Dr. Ben’s voice again.
“Your nephew—he was the boy who was rescued from the restroom that day?”
“Yes. You remember that? I mean, I suppose he was all over the Moreville newspapers for a while. Still, that was so long ago.”
“I… no, I didn’t recall the newspaper articles. I was the man who pulled him out.”
JJ sat up quickly, looking for his clothes. He didn’t need a theater roof to figure out whether his dreams were real; the person who could help him figure it out was three feet away!
But Dr. Ben was already saying, “Ma’am, I’m sorry, I have to run… other patients….”
By the time JJ got the curtain open, only Maggie was standing there. She looked at JJ with wide eyes. “I guess you heard that, huh?”
JJ frowned. He had a bad feeling he wasn’t going to see Dr. Ben again anytime soon. He knew from experience you didn’t go looking for things you were desperately trying to forget.
ON THE drive home, JJ half expected Maggie to cluck and fuss over his hand, but she didn’t say much, except to ask if it still hurt. JJ said it just ached, mostly. They pulled into their driveway, and she announced that she didn’t think it would be difficult for him to dust and tidy with one hand. When he felt better, he could do the bathrooms.
“And no leaving the house or using the Internet until I say otherwise. And I’m taking your cell phone. No texting or Facebooking or whatever else you do on there. Absolutely no contact with the outside world until I tell you that you are no longer a prisoner in this house.” She went down to her basement office with some line about “feeling his presence above her,” leaving JJ to stare around at the mess in the kitchen.
And to think.
JJ was a thinker. He was quiet. Teachers often complained that part of the reason he had the reputation he did in school, as a disrespectful slacker, was because he wouldn’t talk. He frequently responded in monosyllables, and sometimes he was so deep in his own head when a teacher called on him that he just didn’t answer at all. He wasn’t trying to be a jerk. He just liked it better in his head than anywhere else.
Right now, though, his head was buzzing, and he was having trouble keeping up with it. Dr. Ben had been in the restroom with him at the movie theater that day. Just thinking about it made JJ so anxious that he actually picked up the duster and attacked Grandma’s old kitchen hutch.
When the dreams had first started, JJ had researched everything he could find that might tell him whether or not the dream was real. He’d read every newspaper and police report he could get his hands on. He knew that the tattoo he was seeing in his dream had never been brought up—at least not publicly—in connection with the case. He knew that almost every person killed had been in Theater Three, because the fire exit to that theater had been blocked. He knew that if Dr. Ben’s daughter had died, she must have been in that theater, along with JJ’s parents. He knew that a second blaze had been set in the theater’s restroom, and that someone had pulled him out of the fire in that restroom.
But he’d never known who had pulled him out. In the chaos of the fire, the man who had rescued JJ had never been identified by the media, and he’d never come forward to accept public congratulations for saving a five-year-old from certain death.
JJ knew that if Dr. Ben had been the one to pull him out of the bathroom, he might be the only one who could confirm if anything in JJ’s dream was real.
Like the tattoo.
JJ was tempted to slice into his other hand and send himself back to the hospital. At least with two damaged hands he wouldn’t be expected to do schoolwork. But that would hurt, a lot, and JJ hadn’t loved all the blood from his first accident of the day. Anyway, he could make sure he found a way to talk to Dr. Ben. The hospital was only a few blocks away from his high school.
If Maggie thought JJ was out to settle a score with God, she really didn’t know him at all. The only score JJ had was with the person who had killed his parents. The person who had left JJ on fire, dying, in a restroom. The person who had eluded the police for almost ten years. That was the person JJ had a score to settle with.
And Dr. Ben might be just the person to help him do that.