His grandfather called it The Touch, and his mother forbade its use. “A nasty little habit,” she often grumbled. “You must never use it. You must never speak of it.” Sighing, Johnny promised his mother he never would, but that promise evidently did not extend across county lines, where his grandfather lived.
“Mama says we can’t, though,” Johnny said, staring at the old man’s outstretched hands. “She made me promise.”
Grandfather rolled his eyes and spat an expletive. “Your mother never understood,” he said, balling his hands into fists. “Thought it made us freaks. Thought no one would take us seriously if they knew our secret. Such bullshit.” He opened his fists and thrust them forward. “Now we won’t speak of such foolishness here. If your mother doesn’t want to use it, she doesn’t need to…but that doesn’t mean we can’t.”
Johnny considered his grandfather’s weathered hands. “I don’t know. Mama would be mad—”
Grandfather only smiled at this. “Well, what Mama don’t know, won’t hurt her.”
Johnny returned the smile and slowly put his hands into his grandfather’s.
Years later, after his grandfather had passed away and his dad had left home, life followed a somewhat tragic routine for Johnny, who preferred to be called John now that he was in high school. The same gang of idiots from elementary school still ruled the halls, making life hell, and the same beautiful people from middle school went on being beautiful, dismissing anyone not in their stratosphere. On top of that, added homework and an English teacher who couldn’t understand why her students didn’t love literature as much as she did, rounded out the daily drudgery.
“The shattering of the conch,” Mrs. Raymond said, waving a copy of Lord of the Flies in the air.
“What does this symbolize?”
No one answered. John—seated, as always, in the front row, near the teacher’s desk—considered offering his opinion, but such participation would only ensure his further alienation and torment, so he kept his lips sealed.
“The conch!” Mrs. Raymond demanded, grabbing a marker and scribbling on the board. “In chapter one, what calls the boys together—”
Behind John, a hiss rose above the teacher’s condemnation, sending a shiver up his spine: “Hey—hey, John.”
Even though he had transcribed these same notes when Mrs. Raymond presented them last week, John began writing them again in his notebook, a chore for busy hands and a needed distraction from the voice behind him.
“—and in chapter two, during their first meeting—”
“Hey! I’m talkin’ to you, faggot.”
Russell Johnson. Red-headed, foul smelling Russell Johnson—not a beautiful person, to be sure, but a ranking member amongst the gang of idiots. Russell had discovered John in the sixth grade, right around the time John’s grandfather had died, and he hadn’t relented his attacks since, finding new and clever ways to torture the frail boy.
“—he tried helping the boys find reason—oh, Piggy tried!—but they wouldn’t listen—”
“Nice shirt, faggot,” Russell whispered.
The shirt in question was actually an argyle sweater handed down from John’s grandfather, a relic of a time that felt eons ago. It had never earned him scorn before, but the impetus of Russell’s attack, one that would only grow until Mrs. Raymond turned around to face the class, never needed logic or legitimate provocation.
“—the civility of government, the established order, the rules once present on the island—”
Scribble, scribble, scribble—so loud it might drown out the world.
“Plan on playing checkers on all those squares, faggot?” Russell chuckled softly, and so did someone seated nearby. John inched his desk forward, away from the attack.
“—so if that symbol breaks, what does it mean for order on the island—”
“Where ya goin’, faggot?” Suddenly, John’s desk was launched forward with a single kick, sending him crashing into Mrs. Raymond’s desk and knocking her cup of coffee onto her newly graded papers. She turned back toward the stack and shrieked. The class burst into laughter, and John stared at the ruination of his teacher’s hard work, graded essays stained brown with her comments smeared.
“Jonathon Moore!” Mrs. Raymond roared. “What did you do?”
John couldn’t tell her the truth—he couldn’t say anything—so he lowered his head and awaited his punishment, while Russell Johnson chuckled madly behind him.
“Where are we?” Johnny asked his grandfather in an awed whisper. He was staring at the sun dipping below the horizon, its rays staining the mountaintops orange. Snow covered the peaks for miles in every direction, but where they sat now was still green and lush and peppered with flowers and trees. Johnny had never seen anything like it. “What is this place?”
His grandfather didn’t respond for a moment; his attention belonged to the horizon. Finally, he spoke: “My father took me here when I was about your age. And his grandfather took him, as well. Probably stretches all the way back, long before our family came to America.” He diverted his stare for a moment and leafed his hands through the grass and smiled. “It’s changed a bit, as things always will. But I imagine it’s close enough to that first trip our ancestors took.”
Johnny stared at his grandfather, his smile waning. “Why can’t we feel the grass when I take us places? Or the air? Or…anything?”
Grandfather looked at him, and his smile widened, as if he had expected the question. “You’re still learning, Johnny. Your imagination is wild, but it’s not grounded in reality just yet. It’s still just your imagination. You need an anchor.”
The boy turned back to the setting sun, which hadn’t moved since they arrived; in this world, it would never move. Time stood still, and happiness could last forever. “I’ve tried, Grandpa, but—”
“No worries, son,” Grandfather said, patting the boy’s back. “The grass you feel now isn’t the grass on some mountaintop: it’s the grass behind my boyhood home; it’s the grass I felt between my fingers on those early summer nights. It’s my memory, not my imagination. It anchors it to reality, understand?”
The boy did, but it didn’t make the process any easier.
“You’ll get it,” Grandfather said and returned his attention to the setting sun. “Just takes practice. The meeting place between imagination and reality, that’s when it starts feeling real.”
At home, his mother dashed about the kitchen, preparing burnt food that John would have to choke down. Inevitably, the question would arise, and John would consider telling his mother his daily woes, which always paled in comparison to her frantically juggling her day job with her night job and putting up with her asshole bosses at both. “This guy,” she was saying now, “he expects me to have eight arms to do sixteen different things.” John was unsure if she was talking about her job that morning or the one this evening—either way, it amounted to the same thing: Mother’s life at work was no better than John’s was at school.
At last, as John knew she would, she finally asked: “How was your day?”
Most nights, John would shrug his shoulders or say, “Boring,” or talk about all the work they did. But the daily beatings had grown exponentially, and John needed to vent. “I hate Russell Johnson,” he grumbled between gritted teeth.
His mother turned away from the stove, where she was burning a scrambled egg. “What’s this?”
“Russell Johnson,” he said again. His mother and Mr. Johnson had once been friends. Nothing had spurred their eventual separation, other than the cruel hand of time, so his mother still had somewhat of an affinity toward the man and, by extension, his son, so John had to tread carefully; however, in the matter of Russell Johnson, that was difficult. “He’s a dick. He’s always messing with me during class.”
“Did you tell your teacher?”
John sighed. His mother had been in school once—why ask such stupid questions? “No, Mom.”
“Well, what did Russell say?”
John eyed the burnt meal and prepared himself for the worst. “He’s always calling me names. Like ‘pussy’ and ‘faggot’ and he’s always kicking my chair or throwing stuff at me or making people laugh—”
“Johnny—” Here it came: the tragic reason behind Russell’s attack. “—I think he may just be acting out. A boy needs his mother, and the way that poor kid lost his…I know he can probably be cruel, but think about what he’s dealing with. His father used to tell me Russell would cry himself to sleep every night after the accident, that he would have nightmares of his mother trapped in that burning car…” She slid the burnt eggs onto a plate that had been hurriedly washed and was, therefore, still somewhat dirty. She placed the plate before John and offered a look of consolation. “Just imagine what he has to deal with, without his mother being there—”
“My father isn’t here,” John said, his hands clenched into fists. “You don’t see me doing those things.”
Mother sighed. “Yes, but you can still see him if you wanted. We divorced, John. He didn’t die in some horrid accident. Just…maybe just talk to him. I’m sure if you told him how he felt, Russell would understand.”
John said nothing more. He shoveled the acrid, burnt mess into his mouth and forced it down. The boy had grown accustomed to eating shit without complaint.
His grandfather placed a trembling hand into the snow. “Cooold,” he said, removing his hand and wiping it on his pants. “Nicely done.”
Johnny surveyed his work: a snowscape stretching toward a grouping of pine trees on the outer region of a small town. They traversed the hill, trudging through a foot of snow until they stood under one of the towering pines. Grandpa waved his hands in the air, fanning the scent closer to his nose. “Mmm,” he sighed, “I can smell the pine.”
“It smells like our Christmas trees,” Johnny said, suppressing a proud smile, “the real ones we used to buy before the divorce.”
Grandfather peeked down at the boy, who would soon be entering middle school. He hadn’t grown much, and his mother feared he would be a frail figure the rest of his life, but in that moment, the old man didn’t see weakness; on the contrary, he beheld great power. “You’re coming along much faster than I did. I’m actually freezing out here.”
“I thought of when I got frostbite when I was little,” he said, teeth clattering. “When I got lost in the woods by our house and Dad didn’t find me for hours.”
Grandfather considered this and nodded in agreement. “I can feel that, too. There’s a little pain behind it.” The wind picked up, howling frantically through the trees, and the old man shuddered. “Perhaps we better break apart before it gets too cold, yeah?”
In Grandfather’s living room, the boy and old man opened their eyes and let go of each other’s hands. John smiled at his grandfather, who watched the boy for a moment. “What?” John asked, after the stare had lingered a little too long.
“Nothing,” the old man said at last. “It’s just…you’ve got quite a talent, kid.”
In his bedroom, with the door locked, John thrust his face into the pillow and howled, a floodgate of tears finally collapsing after years of rising waters.
Lunch today had been the final straw. After loading up his tray with mashed potatoes and chicken, John had slinked toward his place at the loner table, a deserted isle of misanthropes, outcasts, and freaks. Halfway there, he had felt a pair of hands grasp firmly at the sides of his pants and tug, bringing both his jeans and boxers with them. There he had stood, holding his lunch with his bottom half exposed, and oh how the laughter had risen, drowning out the teachers’ threats. “Little dick!” one boy had cried, while another had thrown her head back in laughter, holding her fingers an inch apart. His eyes burning, John had dropped his lunch to retrieve his trousers, but movement had been difficult, with laughter filling his head and making him drunk. He had turned to retreat just in time to see his assailant: Russell Johnson, of course. Fire-haired, malevolent Russell Johnson.
He would get an out-of-school suspension, maybe. Most likely, he’d wind up with one in-school session, which probably would be spent with the counselor, who took pity on his plight. The teachers would react with restrained anger, reminding themselves of what this boy went through. Whichever course they took, though, would keep Russell away just long enough to plot his next brand of cruelty. That couldn’t happen; John couldn’t endure yet another torment, and as he swished that thought around in his mouth, tasting its bitterness, something new began to form, an idea spun from memory and imagination.
The prick has it coming, he told himself.
That night, after his mother had left for work, John stuck his hand in the fireplace. The pain was instantaneous, growing more with each passing second, but he held it there just the same for ten seconds, as his flesh began to cook, filling the room with its foul smell.
His mother screamed when she saw the burnt flesh, asking frantically what happened. “I made a fire and tripped,” John said between sobs. Mother took pity on him and allowed him to stay home while his hand healed. However, even through the pain and tears, John managed a smile.
“Why doesn’t Mom want me using The Touch?” Johnny asked the summer before middle school, just eight months before Grandfather passed away.
The old man considered the boy, stroked the hairs on his chin, and then sighed. “Oh, I suppose it has to do with the stories she heard about me in high school. You see, your mother didn’t always hate The Touch. When she was little, we’d join hands and go to tropical isles and the mountains and Asian villages. She’d take me to spaceships and different planets, and she was good—just like you, Johnny. She so easily blended the real with fantasy, that you could feel the metal on the space station or the rocks on the Moon.”
He shook his head, looked as if he wouldn’t say any more, but then proceeded anyway: “It started so innocent, but life isn’t always innocent, kiddo. People have needs they don’t speak of, needs for violence and… desires. Needs for flesh. Some men pay handsomely for that—quite handsomely—men who wouldn’t dare have an affair in reality, but in their own minds—hell why not, right? It ain’t real.” He stroked the hairs on his chin again, delaying, hesitating, and then: “I told myself it was for your mother’s education, that the money earned would be put to good use. But one man blabbed about how he had been with Marilyn Monroe and how real it felt, and soon everyone was talking about it. No one really believed it—I mean, unless you’ve felt it, who can understand The Touch?—but it stuck, and your mother felt like a freak.”
Johnny didn’t say anything. The idea of some pervert with his hands enclosed in his grandfather’s, moaning and sighing, while his grandfather sent images of starlets and big-breasted women made him feel sick.
“Maybe,” Grandfather said at last, “maybe your mother’s right about not saying anything. People wouldn’t understand. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it, Johnny. Just…just be smart about it. Use for it good. Don’t do what I did.”
John stayed home the next two days, so his arrival back at school coincided with Russell’s.
Walking down the hallway, John heard the snickers, the whispers, people saying, “Little dick”; he paid them little attention, though, as the bandage on his right hand bothered him more. He rubbed it timidly, whimpered, and then let his hand fall to his side, where it throbbed violently back into a dull pain.
In English class, Russell entered grandly, the victor eying his conquest. “Hiya, little dick,” he whispered as he took a seat behind John, who kept his eyes trained forward and his mouth shut.
Mrs. Raymond scurried into the room and began scribbling feverishly on the board even before the bell rang. “Your exam will look at symbolism, allegory, and theme, and it will be worth one-fifth of your grade.”
John played the part of the good student, taking notes from the board without saying a word.
“Hey, little dick—”
Somewhere, someone was laughing, but it didn’t matter; John had been planning this moment for two days. Without hesitation, he turned around to meet the braying jackass. Before Russell could open his mouth, before he could say something insulting or vile or menacing, John had grabbed the boy’s hands. “What are you—” Russell began, but soon he and John were elsewhere, tumbling through the fibers of John’s mind, where memories of burning flesh and a woman screaming echoed, where John’s imagination had crafted the image of a car spiraling through the air and erupting into a fiery blaze, all of his mother’s pain and torment filtering into Russell’s nervous system. It was a scene Russell had never seen, but one he must have imagined many times before, whenever he had missed his mother, whenever he had nightmares that left him screaming into the darkness. John had prepared extensively, just as his grandfather had taught him, by looking up an image of Russell’s mother, by rubbing his hand along the side of a similar car, and yes, even by sticking his hand into the fire at home.
Screaming, Russell ripped his hands free and fell onto the tiled floor with a loud thud. Tears filled his eyes and color drained from his face, as he pushed himself away from the boy seated in the front row. “You—you!” he cried, as the others watched in horror, this tormentor of the halls reduced to a whimpering mess.
“Russell,” Mrs. Raymond said, her eyes wide and voice frantic, “What’s happening? What’s wrong?”
But Russell could only cry, a memory he had no business possessing now wedged at the forefront of his thoughts. He hadn’t just seen it; he had felt it. He had been in the car as it exploded, he had felt the heat and heard the screams, and he had smelled that pungent aroma of burning flesh as his mother clawed at the windows and gasped for air.
“Why?” the red-haired boy cried. “Why? Why? Why?”
John didn’t have an answer. He simply stared at the wake of his havoc, characteristically keeping his mouth shut.
The last time his grandfather used The Touch, he was on his deathbed.
He grabbed the crying boy’s hands and sent him the image of the mountain again. “Is this a real place?” he asked the old man.
Grandfather sighed. “Does it matter? You can see the setting sun; you can smell the flowers in the air. You can feel the grass, and you can taste the snow. Isn’t that real enough? Does your mind really even know the difference?”
Johnny said nothing for a long while. He and his grandfather just silently shared the moment, sitting atop the mountain, while holding hands in the cancer ward. At last, the boy looked up at his grandfather and said, “You’re dying, aren’t you?”
The old man nodded.
Johnny tried suppressing his tears, and failed. “Could I visit you here? In my mind? Would I know the difference?”
His grandfather considered this. “You need someone else. That’s the way The Touch works. It takes two people. If someone were willing to send it to you…”
But who else beside his mother—who would never dream of using The Touch—could send him such an image?
“No, kiddo, you’re the only one now,” he said. “So send something good. Don’t abuse it the way I did.”
John promised he wouldn’t.
He would never visit the mountain again.
Russell hadn’t been in class all week. Teachers received messages to send all work to the office. Students still whispered about what had happened, and some even thought John had something to do with it. You saw him grab his hands, didn’t you? What the hell did he do? Teachers had cornered him about it, but John denied the whole thing, falling back on his familiar shrug.
One night, John awoke screaming, and it was the closest he had ever come to using The Touch on himself. He was in the car again, and it wasn’t Russell’s mother burning but Russell himself, asking his singular question over and over—why? why? why?
The air was brisk on his walk to Russell’s house. All day he had dreaded this moment, but John knew it was something he had to do.
When he arrived, he found a normal house with a pleasant décor. Russell’s father had taken great strives to maintain the garden his wife had so methodically maintained, and he had kept the outside spotless. He considered running, imagined himself forgetting the whole thing and hurrying home, but he couldn’t; instead, he rang the doorbell twice and waited.
During parent-teacher conferences, John’s teachers had described him in many ways—shy, smart, respectful, diligent, creative—and these were perceptions he always assumed all adults had when interacting with him. However, when Mr. Johnson answered the door, he considered the boy before him in a way John was not accustomed to. His eyes glared at the boy, and he kept himself secured behind the partly opened door.
“Mr. Johnson?” John asked, smiling. “Hi, I’m—”
“I know who you are,” Mr. Johnson said curtly. “You’re Rebecca Moore’s son.”
The boy nodded. Silence filled the gap between them, until John finally said, “Can I talk to Russell—”
“Russell isn’t feeling well,” he spat. He studied the boy, and John knew, without hesitation, that Mr. Johnson knew about The Touch; even more so, the widower understood what it could do. Had his mother used it with him? Had the divorcee and the widower carried on an affair in the same way those perverts had with Grandpa, committed only in the realms of their imaginations, without reality’s morals or laws governing their desires? Had she still been with Dad when she did?
And more so: Was a crime committed in the mind the same as one committed in reality? Before last week, John would’ve scoffed, but now he knew differently.
“So I’m going to ask you to leave,” Mr. Johnson said, and he closed the door.
Walking away, John rubbed the bandage on his hand, beneath which his skin still burned. Before heading back down the sidewalk, John looked up at the second-floor of the Johnson household and saw Russell seated behind the window. Even from this distance, John could see his eyes were glassy and wide with fear. The red-haired boy lingered a moment longer before fleeing from sight.
As he neared home, John tried putting the image out of mind. “He had it coming,” he said. “For everything he’s done, for all the names and making people laugh, the prick had it coming.” But the pain in his hand grew more profound, and that night, after he had fallen asleep, he felt the flames once more and smelled the stench of burning flesh, and he heard the boy cry his question, again and again: why? why? why?
Tim Hanson asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
‘The Touch’ originally appeared in Icarus Down Review.