Read The Book of Bad Things Online

Authors: Dan Poblocki

The Book of Bad Things (2 page)

Parasites are creatures that keep themselves alive by invading or infecting the body of another living thing. This other living thing is called the host. The parasite feeds off the host, drinking its blood or eating it from the inside. Sometimes, the host dies. Then the parasite or the parasite’s little parasite babies move on to find another host to torture and kill.

Although plenty of parasites are bad, I think one of the most horrible parasites is the tongue-eating louse. Even the name is enough to make you want to gag.

Every kid has heard of lice, at least at
school. A single lice is called a louse. They’re the tiny bugs that sometimes live in your hair. My friend Janet caught them when she was really little. She says they bite and they’re itchy, but you can wash them away with a special shampoo, so it isn’t a big deal.

But there is a kind of louse that lives in the ocean that can grow quite large and disgusting. It swims inside the mouth of a fish and attaches itself to the fish’s tongue. Then, it slowly eats the tongue until there’s nothing left but a little stub inside the fish’s mouth. And worse, after that, it latches onto the stub and stays there,
, pretending to be the fish’s
tongue. And it survives by living off whatever the fish eats, nibbling any food that passes by on the way to the fish’s stomach. And there’s nothing the fish can do about it.

I am glad that I am not a fish. OR a louse!!!

her notebook and glanced out the bus window. The world outside was a blur of green. She blinked several times, trying to capture mental snapshots of the scenery. A field of young corn. A tilted barn. Unending hills, lush with summer growth.

Having traveled nearly an hour from New York City already, Cassidy knew she was close to Whitechapel. The landscape was a good gauge. Fifteen minutes out: the yellow grasses of the Meadowlands and the yellow air above Elizabeth, New Jersey. Twenty minutes out: the broken sidewalks and graffiti-covered concrete walls of Newark’s side streets. Thirty minutes out: the ramshackle Victorian houses of Maplewood, Milburn, and Summit, surrounded by the first real vision of green and leaves and flowers and trees. Forty: the suburban sprawl of the towns and the malls just off Route 78. Fifty: the ridge and the sky and the purple distance of a western eternity … and beyond.

Here, at an hour out, the bus had begun its lazy descent toward the Delaware River, where another of New Jersey’s great ridges met the state of Pennsylvania.

Cassidy wouldn’t get that far. The hamlet where the Tremonts lived was nestled in a warrenlike grouping of peaks and valleys a couple miles north of the highway. Soon, the bus would stop at a small shopping center a few miles before the first visible twist of the upcoming river. That parking lot was where Mrs. Tremont had promised she’d be waiting with Joey to bring her the rest of the way to their home, a house where Cassidy had spent the past two summers as part of a program that brought city kids out to the countryside.

This summer was to be her third with the Tremonts. It was also to be her last. Next year, Cassidy would turn thirteen. Too old for the program. And so this was it:
Whitechapel — The Final Chapter

She drummed her fingers nervously on the cover of the notebook in her lap — a cheap journal with a black-and-white marbled cardboard cover that her next-door neighbor had given to her a few years back. The Tremonts had not finalized their decision to accommodate Cassidy until the previous week. The past couple of months had delivered a nerve-wracking series of
. What hurt was feeling that the Tremonts didn’t want her back again. But now she knew that wasn’t true. They’d said yes. Finally. Yes.

Dennis and Rose were like the dad and mom she’d always dreamed of. They treated her like one of their own children. One night, a couple years ago, after Rose had scolded her for leaving a bowl of melted ice cream on the coffee table in the living room, Cassidy had gone to sleep wearing a smile, pleased that Rose had spoken to her the same way she’d speak to Tony or Deb or Joey.

Tony, the oldest of the Tremonts’ three, was in college in Virginia where he spent summers working internships. Cassidy stayed in his bedroom, and whenever he’d visited while she was there, he’d slept on the pull-out couch in the den. Deb was in high school and spent most of her time with her older friends. But Cassidy and Joey were the same age, ten that first summer, and had become fast friends. They’d ridden bikes to the town pool, hiked the trails through the nearby state parks, trekked to the Dairy Queen for Blizzards, plopped exhausted onto the patio furniture out back, swatting at mosquitos, telling each other ghost stories late into the night.

The house in Whitechapel felt more like home than the apartment she shared with her mom, in the supposed
, ever could.

When her social worker had called and told her that “the placement” had gone through, she’d run upstairs to tell Janet and Benji, her best friends in the apartment building. They were disappointed she was leaving them, but she promised to send postcards and they pretended to cheer up. That night, her mother had been as unexcited as she’d been the first two summers, but Cassidy was used to her mother’s eye rolls, her tight lips, her silences. Later, wrapped up in the afghan quilt on the couch in the small living room, Cassidy couldn’t sleep. The social worker’s words ran through her head, two in particular:
host family
. Something about the term had bothered Cassidy, and it had continued to bother her for the next few days. The words echoed even as she climbed onto the bus at the Port Authority that morning.

Now, she drummed her fingers on the notebook cover again and shivered. The air-conditioning that had felt so nice an hour ago was suddenly overwhelming. She pulled a sweatshirt from the backpack on the seat beside her and slipped it over her shoulders, the sleeves extending over her chest like a pair of extra arms. She pressed her lips together and glanced down at the notebook — her journal, her
Book of Bad Things
. Five minutes ago, it came to her, the meaning of the words
host family
. She’d yanked the book from her bag, flipping through pages, desperate to find the relevant entry. It had been number fifty-two. Parasites. Parasites need
to live.

Cassidy squeezed her eyes shut.
Why did the Tremonts wait so long to say yes?
she wondered.
Why didn’t they write to me this past year? Did I do something wrong?

Yes, the previous summer had ended badly, but what had happened with Joey’s dog, Lucky … That hadn’t been her fault. Had it?

The driver eased toward the highway exit. They were almost there. Cassidy breathed deeply, counted to ten. She wanted this summer to be perfect. She wished to write lovely poems about it, maybe in a new journal for happy memories instead of in the book on her lap, the one she clung to like a weapon.

When the bus halted in front of the supermarket, she stood up, grabbed her backpack, and raced up the aisle. Outside, she glanced around quickly, but didn’t see Rose’s white hatchback. The driver handed over her bulky luggage, which she promptly dropped onto the pavement. She heard a crunching sound and her stomach squelched. There went the gifts she’d packed.

She dragged her belongings to the curb and watched as the driver sealed up the luggage compartment, climbed aboard, and shut the door. The bus shifted into reverse. She was thinking, as the bus pulled back like a curtain at a magic show, that Joey would be standing on the other side, waving excitedly at her, his mom beside him, a watchful hand on his shoulder. But when the bus moved out of its parking space and chugged forward, back toward the highway, Cassidy realized that she was alone.

The Tremonts hadn’t shown up.

glared from above, baking the sidewalk underneath her. The longer Cassidy sat, the damper she became. She barely had two inches of sleeve at her shoulder upon which to wipe her brow, and that had already been soaked through several times. She imagined that she looked like a drowned ferret — a great way to greet Joey after a year. She tucked the sweatshirt into her backpack.

After another twenty minutes, however, Cassidy understood that her damp hair, shiny skin, and itchy red eyes should be the least of her worries. Every vehicle that approached from the street made her sit up straight, but the hazy glare off the asphalt was blinding, and Cassidy could only gauge that they weren’t coming for her when they continued on down the road.
They’re just running late,
she told herself.

Unless the social worker had gotten it wrong.

The host family has decided to cleanse themselves of the parasite.

Cassidy shuddered and then stood, trying to think about what she and Joey would be doing later that day. A swim perhaps? Ice cream? A game of H-O-R-S-E in his driveway? What kinds of stories would he have to share? She wracked her mind for every interesting thing that had happened to her since she’d last been to Whitechapel, trying to cement the thoughts in place so there would be no awkward pauses in their conversation when he arrived.

After a while, she noticed that the sun had moved significantly across the sky. It had been more than an hour since the bus had gone. Maybe it was time to call someone. But what if, when she reached out to the Tremonts, they hung up on her, told her off … laughed?

Cassidy sat, removing her notebook and pen from her bag again. Turning to a fresh page, she swallowed down what felt like a large pebble creeping up her esophagus and then scribbled:
Entry #117 — Abandonment … Too many examples to note and not enough pages left.

She scanned her words several times, felt her heartbeat slowing slightly and then smacked her tongue against her upper palate as moisture returned to her mouth. A momentary relief.

She knew that most of the kids who lived out here had cell phones and smart phones and the latest portable communication devices, but Cassidy had never owned one of her own. The city still had quite a few pay phones available if she needed to reach her mother. But the country is not the city. Glancing around the lot, she saw no phones.

Gathering herself together, she dragged her bags across the blistering sidewalk to the supermarket. The sensor flashed and the glass door slid open with a whoosh. Cold air blasted Cassidy’s warm face. The store was almost entirely empty. A Beatles song played softly from hidden speakers. Of the twelve check-out lanes, only one was open, manned by a tall, thin teenage boy dressed in a black T-shirt, black jeans, and a red-vest uniform that sat wide on his bony shoulders. The boy was flipping through a comic book. He barely glanced up as Cassidy approached.

“Uh-um,” Cassidy’s voice broke. “Excuse me?”

The boy set the comic on the check-out belt and then brushed his long black bangs away from his forehead. His expression remained blank, as if he were staring at an empty space instead of a twelve-year-old girl.

“Can you help me?” she asked.

“Depends,” said the boy.

Cassidy blushed. “On what?”

“On what kind of help you need.” The boy blinked. “If you’re being chased by a serial killer, I’d really rather just stay out of it. Collateral damage, you know?”

“I’m not … being chased. By anyone.” She had no idea what he meant by
collateral damage

“Good. Then I’m pretty sure I can help you.” He finally smiled. The flash of straight white teeth made him look mischievous.

“I just need to make a phone call.”

The boy shrugged. “Easy enough,” he said, pulling a cell out of his back pocket. Flipping it open, he asked, “What’s the number?”

Cassidy thought.
The number.
She dropped her bags and rifled through them. “I’ve got it somewhere … I hope. It’s just that Mrs. Tremont was supposed to be here, like, I don’t even know how long ago. I wanted to make sure I didn’t make a mistake.”

“I know the Tremonts,” said the boy. “They live around the corner from me. I used to watch their son when he was little. In fact, I’ve got their number right here.” The boy pressed a couple buttons and then handed the phone over.

Cassidy blinked, surprised. His face looked suddenly familiar. This was the boy who’d stayed with her and Joey once that first summer, when Dennis and Rose had concert tickets in the city. “Thanks,” she whispered. Holding the receiver to her ear, she could hear the ringing.

There was a click and then a female voice answered, sounding annoyed. “What is it, Hal? I’m sort of busy here today.”

“Mrs. Tremont?” Cassidy said. This was followed by a long moment of silence. “Are you there?”

“Cassidy! Oh my … You’re at the Stop & Shop! I saw Hal’s name and … What day …?” The woman mumbled something. “I’m
sorry, honey. Oh my goodness, you sit tight. I’ll be

Another click, followed by silence.

Cassidy handed the phone back to the boy behind the register. “All set?” he asked, looking pleased with himself.

“I hope so,” she answered, her chest trembling. Mrs. Tremont had
her? “Thanks … Hal.”

“You’re welcome, Cassie.” When her mouth dropped open, Hal smirked even wider.

“You remember me?” She hated when people called her Cassie, but she was so surprised he’d come close that she didn’t bother correcting him.

“Now I do. Same black hair. Same dimples. Same sparkly eyes. It’s been a couple, but you don’t look

“You sure do.”

He nodded. “Uh-huh. There are these things called growth spurts? Ever heard of them?”

Cassidy blushed. “Yes. I’ve heard of them.”

“So you’re back in Whitechapel for another few weeks?”

“My last summer. Next year I’ll be too old.”

“Too old? You? I don’t believe it.” Everything that came out of his mouth sounded like a joke.

“It’s true. I’ll be thirteen.” When he didn’t respond, she felt her cheeks growing warm again. “Mrs. Tremont is running late.”

Hal shrugged. “Doesn’t surprise me. It’s been a big day over in Chase Estates.”

A big day? “What do you mean?”

“Of course you haven’t heard,” he said, almost to himself. He sighed and then stared hard at her, as if formulating how to tell the story. “That crazy hermit lady who lived in the old farmhouse on the hill died.” Cassidy shivered, raising her hands to her mouth. “There’d been this smell…. A couple days ago, when the police finally went in, they found her on the living room floor. She’d been there for a few days, ripening in the heat, surrounded by piles of junk. Stacks of it. Like, to the ceiling. People are saying she was a hoarder.” Cassidy shook her head, confused. “A hoarder? You know, someone who can’t throw anything away? It’s some sort of mental disorder. OCD, I think. There was a whole television series about it. Anyway, my friends have been texting me all day. I guess the town’s started clearing the garbage out of the house. Supposedly, they set up a few huge Dumpsters in her front yard, already filled with all sorts of stuff. I’m gonna paw through it when I get out of here. See if she had anything good.”

Cassidy blinked back tears, trying to catch up. “Mrs. Chambers died?”

“Yeah! That was her name.”

Now it all made sense. After what happened at the end of last summer, of course the Tremonts had forgotten about her today.

Other books

Scruples Two by Judith Krantz
A Writer's People by V. S. Naipaul
The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter Copyright 2016 - 2024