He stood near the high school cafeteria door with a tray in both hands, scanning the room for a friendly face. His nose wrinkled in response to the greasy sour stench, the kind of smell that slithers in your nostrils and rolls down your throat. The smell of this cafeteria was worse than most, and he’d been in plenty.
The place was packed with kids sitting at tables, waiting in line for food, or crowded around the exits in chatting, laughing, gossiping knots. It was embarrassing standing there holding his tray, and he knew from experience the longer he went without making a move, the worse it would get. The only consolation was that everybody else seemed too wrapped up in themselves to notice him much.
He spotted a round table over in a corner with several empty chairs. A lone girl sat there, dark-skinned, her hair neatly braided and tipped with bright blue beads. Promising. The boy edged his way through the cafeteria, holding his tray high on his chest to avoid bumping anybody.
Should I ask if the seats are free? he wondered. No, too risky. Don’t give her a chance to think about it. He decided a better strategy would be just to sit like it was no big deal. He lowered his tray to the table.
The girl put her sandwich down and said in a loud voice, “Excuse me, that seat is taken.”
“I’m s-s-sorry,” the boy said. “It d-didn’t look like anyone was here.”
“Well, that’s your mistake now, isn’t it?” the girl replied. He wished she would turn down the volume a little bit. He sensed kids at nearby tables turning to stare. Better to cut this off now, before his face flushed and his throat tightened even more. He picked up his tray and slowly turned back around, desperate now for a place to sit. It was even worse than before—not only was the cafeteria still jammed, but now he saw a few kids recognizing his predicament, their lips curling in anticipation of preying on weakness. No matter. He’d lived through worse. He took a deep breath and shifted his weight to take a step.
“Hey, boy, wait a minute,” the girl called to him. Something struck her about this slight, pale kid with little wisps of red hair swirling uncombed on his head. Some bit of steel in his backbone, some hint he wasn’t as pitiful as he looked on the surface. “You might as well sit here a minute. You know, ‘til all my friends get here.”
Not a great bargain but he took it. “Th-th-thank you,” he said, putting his tray back down. He wanted to explain about how hard it was to find a friend, or at least a seat, but it was better to keep the words inside. Inside they were clear and strong, outside they were muddled and brittle.
”So you got a stutter, huh?” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “I c-can’t help it.”
“I know that. Nobody would stutter if they could help it, would they?”
The boy shook his head.
“My name is Dice. I mean, it’s not my real name. But it’s what ever’body calls me.” The boy smiled and moments passed. Dice tapped impatiently on the table a couple times. “Now, you tell me your name,” she said with a roll of her eyes, irritated at having to explain the basics.
“I’m S-Sullahan,” he said.
“Sullahan? What kind of name is that?”
“It’s f-from Ireland.”
“I don’t mean, where is the name from,” she said. “I mean, why is it so weird?”
He shrugged and brought a bite of lima beans to his mouth. “Y-you’re one to talk, D-dice.”
Dice made a clicking sound in the back of her throat like he was pushing his luck. “All right. I’ll call you Sully for short. How do you like that?”
“It’s fine,” Sully said. “Other k-kids have worse n-n-n- -”
“Worse names for you,” Dice said. “Got it. So, you new here, huh?”
“Yes, I j-just moved here.”
“Where’d you come here from?”
“Okay, Tennessee. Look, I’ll do the talkin’, and you just eat your lunch, okay?”
Sully nodded. Not talking was fine with him.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing to a tiny silver pin on the collar of his shirt. It was in the shape of triple spirals meeting in the center.
He tapped it without looking. “A g-good luck charm. M-my mom gave it to me. It’s called a trisk-k, a triskel-l—”
“Don’t bother. Does it work?”
Dice lost interest in the triskelion. Her eyes brightened with a new idea. “Rules.”
“Yep. If you’re going to be sittin’ here every day, there’s going to have to be some rules. Number one, this is my table, and I can tell you to go any time.” She checked to see if he was paying attention. Sully chewed a bite of Salisbury steak and gazed at her. Good enough. “Two, I make all the rules. As long as you’re sittin’ here, I can tell you what to do. Understood?”
Sully nodded. “When are your other f-f-friends getting here?” he asked.
He gestured at the empty seats.
She stared at him with narrowed eyes. “I’m fixin’ to exercise rule number one. So why don’t you keep your trap shut until the bell rings?”
Sully smiled to himself. He was pretty sure he and Dice would have the table to themselves.
Sully lay awake in his bare, dark room long after the house turned quiet. The room held his bed, desk, and some boxes stacked in a corner, all his things still packed away. It was too dark and too still and he felt out of place, and lonely. The first day of school had only gone downhill after lunch. He’d gotten lost on his way to geometry and was still wandering the halls after the bell rang. The teacher had not taken pity on him when he’d finally arrived. “Quite a first impression you’ve made, Sullahan Kildare,” he’d said. “Let’s see if we can arrive promptly tomorrow, shall we?” At least the kids weren’t making fun of him for his stutter, yet. Nobody’d heard him talk, except Dice. No, the taunting would come later. It always did.
Thunder rumbled outside and a few drops pitter-pattered against the window. Then the rain came harder, growing in intensity until it seemed lakes and oceans of water must be coming down. A low thump sounded from somewhere behind his head. He looked back, startled, but nothing was there. Thunder, surely? No, there it was again. From inside the wall. Not too loud, like somebody had weakly pounded a fist.
He put his head on his pillow and tried to remember the layout of the house. It was a lot bigger than anyplace they’d lived before. The next room over was the guest room. Shouldn’t be anybody in there. He looked at the digital clock but it was dark. The power must have gone out. It’d been a little past midnight the last time he‘d looked so it must be about 12:30 now. Maybe Dad is up? Unlikely, as he had to be at his new job in the morning. And anyway, why hadn’t he heard him in the hallway?
Another thump, a little louder now, and directly behind him. His heart was beating fast and he hardly dared move. His mind raced, trying to reason out what could be making the sound. Not mice. Maybe a raccoon.
He strained his ears, and thought he could make something out. It was hard to tell with the sound of the rain on the window, but it sounded almost like…whispering. Yes, whispering, from inside the wall. And another thump, there was no mistaking it now. Whatever was in there, it was no raccoon.
He strained to make out the words but it was impossible with the noise from the storm covering it up. For a moment the rain let up and in the interlude he heard one word through the wall, distinct and clear: “Sullahan.”
He pulled the sheets over his head and curled his body up. He was shivering though it wasn’t cold, and every sense now was acutely tuned. But after the whisper there were no more sounds that night. He was sure of that, for he was awake every moment of it. And in the morning, the overturned box he was using as a bedside table was bare. The triskelion was gone.
I hope you enjoyed the first chapter of Roll dem Bones! Now read the rest of the book!