Tennessee, June 12th, 1959

Posted: Monday, January 19, 2009, 9:03 am

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(Length: 9 min, 46 sec)

Presenting the winners of the 2008 Worthington Libraries Teen Poetry and Short Story Competition. Danielle Hart, the first place winner for high school short story, reads "Tennessee, June 12th, 1959."

If you experience the same emotion enough, eventually you must become immune to it, thought Jeremy Stevens. Like humiliation. Regret. All the feelings he used to have when he got in trouble with his dad.

"How could you and your brother be so different? It's not like I don't try, Jeremy. God knows I try." His father pounded his fist against the bookshelf.

Jeremy tuned out the noise. It was more bearable to think of his chastising father as just noise. Arnold Stevens was another sound to add to the wind outside and the squawking chickens.

"Are you listening to me?"

Jeremy gritted his teeth. "It was just a comic book, Dad." He traced his finger along the coffee table, refusing to make eye contact. A layer of dust came off on his hand.

His father exploded. "Stealing is stealing!" he cried. "All those books you read are practically promoting the occult! It's bad enough that you read them."

"They're superheroes, not witches," Jeremy muttered. "And why are you yelling at me? Donald's the one whose friend is in jail!"

"Don't bring your brother into this. At least he keeps up his appearance. Just look at your hair; it's nearly to your ears!"

Jeremy ran a hand over his head. "I'd grow it longer if I could," he grumbled to annoy his father.

Arnold Stevens was furious. "But why?"

Jeremy shrugged. "It's cool... And I hate getting my hair cut."

That much was true. Since childhood Jeremy always had a secret fear his mother would accidentally chop one of his ears off.

"So you want to look like a woman, Jeremy, is that it?"

Jeremy stood up. "No." He headed for the door.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"I don't know. Maybe somewhere that doesn't think radio is immoral." He slammed the door with all the strength his fourteen-year-old body could muster. He was on his bicycle in a leap and headed for the town garbage dump. The dump was Jeremy's refuge. It was private, hidden, and the home of his friend Jim.

Five minutes later Jeremy began to see the mountains of trash. He could smell them when he was closer, and once he reached the gate it was almost overpowering. Jeremy threw his bike to the dry ground and cautiously opened the gate, which creaked like something from a horror movie.

"Jim?" he yelled. "You here?" He stepped inside. "Jim?"

A moment later someone called from across the dump. "Hey! That you, Jeremy?"

Jeremy navigated through the garbage, following the voice to a tall trash pile. Jim was a strongly built man in his mid-twenties of American Indian descent. Stepping from behind the pile, he grinned at Jeremy, obviously delighted to talk to someone.

"Good to see you, Jeremy! I got something to show you." Jim led him to the only building amid the trash.

"What is it? You know, you ought to sell some of this stuff."

Jim smiled. "Thanks. It's behind the building."

Jeremy ran and gasped. "Cool!" It was a shiny blue car with a crooked antenna. "Jim, where the heck did you get this?"

"It's a new project of mine." Jim laughed. "Someone just left it here one day, and I decided to fix it up. Doesn't have a good engine yet, but that's my next step. I got the key from the ignition, and now I wear it." He lifted a chain from his neck." So no one steals it."

Jeremy grinned. "This is so great! Can I sit in it?"

Jim nodded. "Sure, I don't see why not... Are you going to pretend to drive or something?" He raised his eyebrows.

"Pretend? I already know how to drive," Jeremy scoffed, hopping behind the wheel and twisting it back and forth. He punched the buttons on the dashboard.

"Where'd you learn to do that?" Jim frowned.

"I taught myself. It's not that hard," Jeremy replied, turning to face the trunk.

Nodding in admiration, Jim said, "You've got quite a brain, Stevens."

Jeremy climbed over the front seat. "Thanks," he laughed. "...I wish my dad'd say that sometime." He paused. "It's my birthday tomorrow."

Jim had a slight tone of pity in his voice. "Happy birthday, kid." He glanced around the dump. "Fifteen years old... Hey, I got an idea."

Jeremy got out of the car. "What?"

Jim smiled. "Take anything you like for your birthday. I know it ain't much, but—"

"That's fantastic!" Jeremy exclaimed. He paused, looking at the mounds of garbage. "Can I take a car?"

Jim chuckled. "Let's maybe wait for your next birthday."

But you said anything," whined Jeremy. "And I want a car. I can keep it here! I don't even have to bring it home!"

"No. I know I said anything, but you're a minor, and—"

"I'm teasing, Jim, I'll pick something else." Jeremy scanned the dump again.

"Wait!" Jim exclaimed, remembering something. "I got something you might like. Wait a minute." He disappeared into his house and returned with a stack of comic books. "Someone dumped a bunch of these and I knew you liked reading them."

Jeremy grinned. "That's great!" He took the stack from Jim and flipped through one. "Wow, there's gotta be at least ten here." He suddenly made a face. "I have to hide them from my dad, though. He thinks they'll 'pollute my mind' or something."

"Hmm," replied Jim. "Do you think if you stopped reading comic books then you'd read normal books?"

Jeremy shook his head. "No way."

"Then I say comic books encourage you to read," Jim decided. "So that means they're educational, right, Je—"

Jim was interrupted when Arnold Stevens stormed into the area, face red. Jeremy swore loudly. His father grabbed Jeremy by the collar while his son babbled an incoherent stream of words.

"No, Dad, it's nothing! I just like being here!"

Arnold Stevens slapped his son's cheek and the boy gasped, stumbling backwards and dropping the books. Jeremy closed his eyes and felt his face throbbing. It was like being a child, cowering in bed because of the monster in the closet. Closing his eyes was Jeremy's way of covering his head with a blanket—if he couldn't see the monster, it couldn't see him...

But since he was no longer a child and his father was justifiably angry, Jeremy opened his eyes. Jim had dropped his cigarette and was holding his hands out in a peaceful gesture. "I wasn't letting your boy do anything wrong, I promise."

Arnold paused, his flesh returning to its normal tone. "I've heard of you. You're the Indian who lives here." He clenched his teeth. "What is my son doing here?"

Jim glanced at Jeremy, whose face was painted with a bright pink handprint. "Jeremy likes to come here, sir. I don't ask him to... Jeremy, maybe it's best you don't come back here."

Mr. Stevens laughed humorlessly. "That's for sure. Just remember, I'll have you arrested if I see you with my son ever again."

"You won't," Jim promised. "I apologize."

Arnold nodded. "Get in the car, Jeremy."

Jeremy slunk to the car, wincing as he touched his face. The car door felt strangely cool for the summer. He sat down. His father got in and started the ignition.

"I'm disappointed in you," were his first words. Jeremy nodded listlessly.

"Not only were you at the dump, you were with someone twice your age who could be a kidnapper for all you know!"

"That's insane—"

"No, it's not! It happens all the time... I have half a mind to cancel your birthday party tomorrow."

Jeremy gasped. "No, you can't! I already told people about it and we were gonna go fishing or something."

"Don't argue with me!" his father yelled. The duration of the car ride passed in silence.

Later that evening Jeremy poked at his food with a fork. The dinner table was quiet. Jeremy had only been allowed out of his room to eat and use the bathroom.

"Jeremy, aren't you gonna eat your beans?" his mother asked, breaking the silence.

"He's not gonna eat if you prod him; he's like a mule," her husband replied. Jeremy glanced at his plate.

His older brother smiled. "He's just mad 'cause Dad caught him reading comics with the trash man."

Jeremy threw his fork to the ground, where it clattered. "I was not!"

Mrs. Stevens sighed. "You shouldn't go down there alone."

Jeremy groaned angrily and stormed to his bedroom. His father's voice echoed after him. "Don't call him back; he needs to learn."

In his room Jeremy flopped to the bed and tried to cry. His parents were suckers for tears, but he could not make them come. He turned onto his back and stared at the ceiling. The sky was darkening outside.

"If they weren't such losers I could be outside now," Jeremy muttered. "I could be planning my birthday party or riding my bike—" His heart skipped a beat. He had abandoned his bicycle at the dump. Jeremy swore and sat up, gazing out the window. An idea formulated in his mind. He could easily jump out the first-story window and run to the dump. His father didn't want to talk to him and his mother would follow her husband, so Jeremy had ample time to sneak over there.

He made the decision and opened the window, a wave of warm air washing over him. Jumping out, his shoes hit the grass quietly and Jeremy began to run.

The dump was different in the dark. The piles of trash rose over Jeremy like eerie creatures, and the smell of garbage was from their giant, unwashed bodies. Jeremy shivered and lifted his bike from the dirt. He wouldn't talk to Jim; that would make things worse. As he was ready to pedal away Jeremy heard voices from behind Jim's house.

"—not starting!" a teenager hissed.

"Maybe you've never done this before," a male voice taunted. "You liar."

"I have, it's just not starting!" the first voice replied in anger.

Jeremy slunk to the building and stuck his head around the corner. Three teenage boys were surrounding Jim's blue car. Jeremy gasped.

"Hey! Get away from that!" he yelled, but his voice caught when the strangers looked at him menacingly.

"Who the heck are you?" one of them cried. "Get away from here!"

"That's not your car," Jeremy said rather quietly, his bravado disappearing. "Just, just leave it alone. It ain't got no engine anyway."

One of the teenagers laughed. "Yeah, sure, kid." He glanced at one of the accomplices. "Can't you do something about him, George?"

George pulled a gun from his coat pocket. "Go away!" he yelled. "This ain't none of your buisness, so if you don't want me to shoot you'd better run right now!"

A square of light washed over them suddenly, and for the first time Jeremy realized how young all of the boys were. Jim emerged from his house in a rage.

"Are you trying to steal my car?!" he shouted at them. Then he noticed Jeremy and the boy with the gun. Jeremy looked at Jim helplessly.

The teenagers without the gun sprinted away, terrified by Jim's sheer size. Jeremy stumbled backward as Jim leapt from the door and knocked him aside. Then George fired the gun and fled. Jim fell to the ground.

Jeremy screamed and for a minute could do nothing but stand, frozen to the ground. Then he was reanimated and fell to his knees over Jim, whose shirt was covered with blood.

"Jim?" Jeremy whispered. Jim didn't reply. Jeremy let out a terrified sob and ran into the house to call the police.

After the police talked to Jeremy, George and the other boys were found a mile away from the dump and immediately arrested. Jim was declared dead an hour later, but Jeremy was with his father at the time. They were driving home.

"It's all my fault," Jeremy mumbled as they pulled up to the house. "If I hadn't said nothing they would've just left. " He was trying not to cry. "I'm sorry. I wish I'd never gone there in the first place."

His father looked at him for a minute. "Jeremy, It wasn't your fault. I know you would never let anything happen to a... friend of yours." He sighed, seeming to struggle for a moment. "I'm sorry."

"Sorry? For what?" That was the last thing Jeremy expected him to say.

"I'm sorry I've been so strict with you. It's just... I want to make sure you're always safe." He looked out the window. "...When I was a kid I got into trouble a lot."

Jeremy couldn't believe it. "Oh," he replied, unsure of what to say.

"Yeah. I just didn't want you to turn out like I did. But maybe," his father continued slowly, "I'll let you read some of those comic books if I look over them first."

Jeremy's jaw dropped. "Thanks," he whispered as they pulled into the driveway. The light was on in the kitchen, and he could see his mother's figure silhouetted in the window. For the first time in years, he was glad to be home.

Danielle Hart
1st Place, High School Short Story
2008 Worthington Libraries Teen Poetry and Short Story Competition

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