Always expect the unexpected for it is the unexpected that will lead to disappointment – I. W.Fredd
His eyes were flat, emotionless holes against an expressionless face as he tilted his head back and watched the thick band of gray clouds rolling across an ashen sky. The last of the watery yellow-white sunlight was now hiding behind the growing firmament, and his nostrils tickled against the faintly musty smell of rain approaching the sleepy town. As the restless winds blew past, the wildflowers swirled around his feet. They toppled over open trashcans, spilling their rotten contents onto the cracked pavement.
He was alone to embrace the elements, at ease with the empty streets and deserted sidewalks.
A humorless chuckle escaped his lips as he shook his head.
A raindrop had fallen from the darkening sky and splashed against his freckled nose.
His name is Sky. His father had told him that his eyes—sparkling, clear, and brilliantly cerulean—had reminded him of the heavens on a hot summer’s day. What would he say now if he was here to witness the gloomy weather at the beginning of June? Can he even see the sky where he is? With a heavy sigh, he resumed his stroll through the quiet neighborhood. There was still a part of him inside that always hoped to run into someone he could spend the deadening days with. But Sky quickly shoved the inane possibility away. As expected, he did not have luck on his side.
You’re deluded, Sky. He threw a glance over his shoulder.
Who did he expect to see anyway? He was still new and had yet to meet anyone his age—let alone make a friend. The inhabitants of Gannings, Oklahoma, weren’t thrilled about having them as the newcomers invading their municipality in the first place. He noticed the scornful glares, the mocking hand gestures, and persnickety mannerisms whenever he or his mother were present in a public outing. He couldn’t be surprised when he had an infamous convict for a father. He should have expected as much, grown used to the elusive behavior of humanity whenever he was within their sights. Expectations. Always expect the unexpected, as the famous saying went. He snorted and rolled his eyes. Ridiculous. How could he or his mother have foreseen the horrific turn of events that left them living their lives skulking around in the shadows to avoid public ridicule? Things like that were always easy to say when you never had to go through them.
Monster, he thought and felt the familiar bitterness well up inside him.
He let the boiling ire surge through his veins and curled his hands into fists. He hated being reminded of how he was still alive to carry the burden of his father’s inhumane actions.
With a cry of frustration, he struck out with his foot and kicked aside an abandoned trashcan. It skittered along the street and rolled against the asphalt with a reverberant series of thuds. What was he thinking? Why did he continue to get his hopes up? Friends? Someone like him? The offspring of the father he wished he never had and branded a murderer because of the filthy blood coursing through his veins. They won’t come out if I’m here. They never do. Nobody ever wants the murderer’s son. They never came out when the Joshuas roamed around.
The living legacy of the evil monster of their nightmares.
What did they think he could do? Pull out a gun and start shooting randomly like his father did? He swallowed the growing lump in his throat. Why was he the same as him? Could they not see his innocence? He wasn’t the one who killed the hostages when his plans to escape backfired. He wasn’t the man wearing a black ski mask, shouting at the tellers to put the money in the duffel bags. He let out a shaky breath. He wasn’t the one who stood behind the gun and pulled the trigger.
He is not Ian Joshua—no matter how much he physically resembled him.
Blood runs thicker than water. Ian Joshua’s last words to him before he was sentenced and dragged away by a pair of grim-faced officers. The sound of jangling chains still haunted him. What did that mean? That he would become a coldblooded killer because of their shared DNA? Would they always be the same no matter what path he decided to take in his own life?
Sky shook his head in anger. No. he would never be like him.
He was Skylar Joseph Joshua. A seventh-grader at Pine Bough Junior High.
A simple boy who wanted a simple life. He liked to read and take long walks through the woods, fantasizing about ancient mythological beasts and exploring the make-believe birthplaces of urban legends. His father never enjoyed such imaginary activities. A child who had once run too fast and scraped a knee after a clumsy fall or tried to steal a chocolate chip cookie from the ceramic cookie jar with the teddy bear on the front. So why was he condemned to paying for the crimes of another?
“I’m not my father,” he whispered to no one in particular. “I’ll never be.”
He quickened his pace as the raindrops began to fall and pelt him like cold machine-gun bullets. In the distance, a roaring clap of thunder could be heard, followed by jagged flashes of lightning. Sky instantly regretted his decision. He groaned and flipped the collar of his coat up, keeping his head receded into the furry outline. I should have stayed home, he concluded. There was no point in coming out here—
“Hey!” the voice sounded distant and shrill, like the song of a wind chime.
Sky ignored this and instead broke into a light jog, shielding his eyes from the pouring sheets of rain.
You’re such an idiot, Sky. Why did you have to be born in the first place? The words stung, but he downed them regardless—the way he was forced to with everything else. He kept his eyes downcast on the slick sidewalk, mentally counting the cracks he managed to jump over. He didn’t need to break his mother’s back by stepping on them. Surprisingly enough, his father didn’t think of it first. Another clap of thunder echoed through the air, blue lightning dancing close behind.
“Wait up!” the voice called out, and thudding footsteps followed afterward.
Sky mentally groaned. He was in no mood for companionship from a kid who would just be whisked away by a distrusting mother or an outraged father. Ignoring the tug of longing in his chest, he continued through the shower. He was shivering now and soaked through his layers of clothing.
“Hold up!” the footsteps slowed behind him.
But Sky didn’t turn around and see who was stupid enough to approach him. Just keep it plain and simple, he decided and sucked in his breath. I don’t need to entertain a meaningless conversation. He imagined the watchful eyes behind the drawn curtains of his neighbors and shuddered. I rather drown in the rain than give them another reason to hate my guts. He let out a sad sigh—and realized that the summer shower was no longer falling on him. Confused, he looked up—into the inside of a pink umbrella hovering over his head.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked flatly and frowned at the slender, African American girl before him. “I didn’t ask for your help.”
“Doesn’t mean I shouldn’t help you,” she said and placed a dainty hand on her narrow hip. She was small and swimming in a yellow raincoat, two sizes too big for her frame. Her dripping, ebony curls were matted to her head and neck, with rainwater drizzling around a square-faced face. Her smile was radiant and seemed to provide a light that somehow brightened her aura and strengthened her presence.
Sky quickly looked away. “What do you want?” he asked. The frown on his face grew more critical.
The girl sighed and rolled her eyes. “Isn’t it obvious? You’re new to this boring town, so I thought I would introduce myself to you—”
“Hi,” Sky said testily, “My name is I’m Not Interested. Please to meet you—not. Go away. It’s not good to be around me.”
But the strange girl didn’t flea. Instead, she stood before him like a prison warden, the smile on her friendly face quickly disappearing. “One,” she said slowly. “Don’t ever tell me what to do. I came here to be nice to you since you’re new and pitifully lonely, so at least give me a chance to tell you a bit about myself. Gosh, where are your manners?”
Sky scoffed. “I think it’s you and your hillbilly town that could use a few lessons in manners. If a person doesn’t want to talk to you, then how hard is it to turn around and go away?”
The girl scowled at him. “And if a person is going out of their way to be polite to you, how hard is it for you to have some common courtesy and wait until they’re finished to give them attitude?”
They glowered at each other. Sky sighed deeply. “Fine. Introduce yourself and get lost afterward.”
She frowned. “I’m trying to be your friend here. At least look happier.”
Sky rolled his eyes. The girl sighed. “Fine then. My name is Piper Beaumont. If I’m not mistaken, I’m the neighbor that lives across the street from you.” Sky couldn’t help the scowl that crept onto his face. That house, he thought scornfully and envisioned the glaring middle-aged woman he encountered when retrieving the soccer ball that had bounced across the street and landed on the manicured lawn.
“Are we done here?” Sky hissed and glared at Piper. “I’m going home.”
Piper returned the glare with one of her own. “And you have the nerve to say that us’ hillbillies’ are the ones with no manners? Ha! I should have expected this much from someone like you.”
Sky gritted his teeth together. There it is again. The expectation.
It’s not her fault that my dad is a murderer. Will there ever be anyone who cared to get to know who he was and not the person they expected him to be because of his family reputation? He took a deep breath and willed the flaring rage inside him to subside. He took a deep breath.
“My name is Sky,” he said. “Yeah, I guess I do live in front of you.”
Piper’s face brightened as she smiled again, her cheeks dimpling from the gesture. “There we go!” she said with a light laugh. “We’re making process here.”
But for how long? Don’t get your hopes up. Sky sighed. “But I think we should leave this conversation like this. There is nothing more for us to say.”
Piper threw her hands up in exasperation. “Well, excuse me for trying to be friendly to the son of my mom’s new friend!” She huffed and crossed her arms, defiantly over her chest. “You’re definitely not as nice as your mom.”
Sky gaped at her. “What…did you say?” he whispered slowly.
Piper hesitated briefly before answering. “Yeah…your mom is a nurse, right? At the White Petal Hospital Center? Well, she works with my mom, Ann Beaumont. She says nothing but good things about her, and she seemed like a sweetheart when she came by the other day. You, on the other hand, are just rude and have an awful attitude….”
Her voice tuned out as Sky’s mind began to spin. She’s hanging out with her mom? She knows how that lady hates my guts but befriends her anyways? What happened to keeping a low profile since dad was arrested? What about all the things she warned me not to do? She just goes and does it behind my back? He was fuming. He could feel the sudden rush of blood pounding at his temples and clenched his teeth together once more, eyes narrowing into a venomous glare.
“Hello?” Piper snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Are you listening to me?”
He nodded absentmindedly. He watched Piper’s round lips move in the form of a question, but he paid no mind to her words. Not when his mother had gone back on her promise to him. Wordlessly, he spun away and sped down the street in the direction of home.
He slammed the door shut with all his might before hastily kicking off his soggy shoes and stomping up the steps towards his bedroom. How can a mom do this? That Beaumont woman was the one who insisted that the town treat him like a diseased outcast, and now she was on friendly terms with her? She never bothered to say anything to him about this. He had to hear it through that woman’s daughter?
“Sky?” Serena Joshua came from the kitchen.
He ignored it. After all, it wasn’t like his mother would understand his frustrations anyways. How could she comprehend his feelings when she couldn’t understand how to be loyal to her only son? He reached the top of the steps and bolted towards the door at the end of the long hallway. He didn’t want to come. It was his mother’s idea to return to her childhood home in the first place without a peep from him. She never cared to consult his thoughts or feelings for anything.
She treated him the way everyone else did—like a threat hovering on the horizon of their lives.
So be it. It was clear where Mrs. Joshua now stood.
There was nothing different here compared to how things were in their old neighborhood. At least people here just ignored you. They hadn’t chucked dirty garden stones through their front windows with threatening notes attached to them or vandalized their property with rotted eggs and black spray paint. Sky swallowed audibly and leaned against the door. He blinked back the surge of oncoming tears bubbling at the rims of his eyes. No one was there when his friends abandoned him or when his peers relentlessly bullied him out of school.
He slid down to the floor and pulled his knees up to his chest. He wasn’t able to look them in the eyes during the trial. Worst of all, they weren’t there to face the families of the victims whose lives were unjustly taken by the man he once called his father.
What could he have said to make them feel better? He closed his eyes before the tears could fall.
Why did he have to say anything? He wasn’t the one responsible for their demise, and yet they looked at him with expectant eyes, as if waiting for him to drop to his knees and beg for their forgiveness—
“Sky? Please open the door,” his mother called and tapped once on the door. “Let me know you’re okay.”
Sky chuckled noiselessly. Him? Okay? Nothing would ever be okay with him.
He rolled his eyes in vexation. What could his mother say to make things all better? What could she do? Their lives were in ruins, their reputations in shambles. Because of what? Greed? It wasn’t worth it in the end, was it? Ian Joshua had earned himself a life sentence without the possibility of parole. What was the accomplishment behind that? An orange jumpsuit and a spot in a grimy cell with another dangerous convict he would call his new roommate? He had been selfish. So greedy and selfish. How did it not occur to him that his actions would permanently scar his wife and son? Did he even care when he made his stupid decision?
“Sky!” Mrs. Joshua shouted. Her light tapping turned into urgent pounding. “Did something happen? Come out and talk to me. Are you listening?”
He shook his head and bit down on his lip to hold in the sobs. Now she wanted to ask how he was feeling? Fine. They would speak--about everything.
He quickly climbed to his feet and yanked the door open. Mrs. Joshua jumped but hastily composed herself. Though she was colorless and miserable, she was still a pretty woman with her wispy, featherlike frame and silvery blond hair pulled into a tight bun at the nape of a long, slender neck. Her refined features were twisted into a grimace of worry and disapproval, and slim hands were resting on her hips.
She leaned against the doorframe as if to support her gangly form.
“You wanted to talk?” Sky spat and rolled his hands into quivering fists. “Fine. Let’s talk about how we had to move here to escape all the hate we were getting back home. Let’s talk about how I can’t trust anybody here because of the many, many enemies he has made in his career as a murderer.” Serena opened her mouth to argue, but Sky cut her off with a hand in the air. He shot her a murderous glare. “Let’s talk about how you and Ann Beaumont are suddenly the best of friends—the same lady who took it upon herself to convince everyone in this stupid town that I’m just as bad as your husband.”
“Stop this, Skylar.” Mrs. Joshua’s voice was cold and hard like stone.
Sky laughed incredulously. “Stop? Why? You’re the one who wants to know what’s wrong with me. Here it is. Let’s talk about how we’re practically on the run because of what that evil murderer did!”
“I said stop it, Skylar!” Mrs. Joshua roared. Her eyes seemed to darken ominously, smoldering with unspoken threat. “You don’t know a thing about the situation. Do not speak about what you don’t know.”
“Don’t,” Sky hissed and matched her glower with his own. “Don’t treat me like I’m some stupid kid who doesn’t know anything. I was there when he confessed to killing them all. I was sitting in those stands with the victims!” He took a bold step forward. “So don’t tell me that I don’t know, mom! I know what happened! I know everything, and I won’t let you or anybody else tell me otherwise!”
Mrs. Joshua’s glare grew in intensity. “I repeat,” she said through gritted teeth, “that there’s more to the story than what you know. Your father made a grave mistake, and it cost him—and us—dearly. But you are no one to disrespect and speak so badly of your father. I will be damned to the deepest parts of Hell before I stand here and let you continue your rebellious behavior. I will tell you once more, Skylar Joseph Joshua, stop this now. You don’t know as much as you think you do.”
“Oh, really?” Sky argued. “Then what is it that I don’t know? Why don’t I know it?”
“You are too young to understand the true nature of this situation,” Mrs. Joshua explained calmly. “There are things about what happened that won’t make sense to you right now. That is all that I will tell you.”
Sky snorted cynically. “Typical. The man ruins your life, and yet you still stand beside him? What do you gain from protecting him?”
Serena let out a long breath. Her eyebrows twitched in anger. “What your father decided to do was for our own good—”
“For our own good?” Sky interjected. He blinked in disbelief. “How is going outside and having people avoid you like the plague for my own good? Mom, do you have any idea how it feels to know that you will always be alone everywhere you go? To know that no matter what I say and do, people will always see me as the second Ian Joshua—”
“We are done with this discussion,” Mrs. Joshua said frigidly. “So drop it.”
Sky dropped his eyes to the floor, his vision blurring with tears of frustration. She did it again. She shut him down. Why couldn’t she see this his way? He didn’t ask for this to happen. He didn’t wish for his father to be a coldhearted killer. He didn’t ever want to have to suffer the consequences. She hates me, doesn’t she? Is that why she’s always like this? He wondered and felt his shoulders shake with rising anger. Why did it have to be their family? If there really was more to the story, then why wouldn’t she be forthright and just say it to him?
“Try living it.” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. Mrs. Joshua stiffened. An agonized sob escaped Sky’s throat. “Try living like an outcast for something you never did! Try being seen as someone that you’re not because of someone else! Try it all on and see how it feels, mom!” He was breathing heavily now, his pants heaving his chest up and down.
“You’re not the only one!” Mrs. Joshua retorted. “You think life is peachy for me, Skylar? Do you think having to get up every morning and face the demons out there is easy for me?”
Both Joshuas lapsed into a tense silence.
It’s hard for you, maybe, but it’s even harder for me. It wasn’t the same. Mrs. Joshua could go anywhere that she wanted to go, remarry, drop the last name, and start a new life whenever she wanted. But he would always be the son of Ian Joshua. He would still bear the resemblance, the same blood surging within and the corresponding burden weighing on his shoulders no matter who he wanted to be. You have the nerve to complain when you are the one going out of your way to justify his actions? Sky hung his head in defeat. So be it. She could suffer at his side for eternity if it suited her. But he would no longer be shackled to her burden.
He would not go down with the family ship.
Mrs. Joshua broke the silence with a weary sigh and dropped her hands on Sky’s narrow shoulders. “This is not easy for me, Sky. I miss how we were too. But we have to learn to endure this and survive through this madness for your father’s sake. Trust me when I say that I understand how you feel right now and if I could make it better I—”
“That’s just it!” Sky snarled and wrenched himself out of her grasp. “You can make it better, but you choose to handcuff yourself to a man that deserves to be burning in Hell for the pain he caused so many people around him! You have the power of ending our suffering—but you don’t want to! You don’t care! No, mom. Not this time. Those sweetened words may have worked on me before, but I won’t fall for them this time. Or the next.”
Mrs. Joshua pressed her lips into a thin white line and rose to her full height. “I won’t say that I’m sorry, Sky. If I could say more, then I would. But I can’t. Whether you believe me or not, all your father and I are doing is for your protection.”
Sky turned away from her and let the tears flow from his eyes. “Just leave me alone.” He shook his head slowly. “I don’t want to hear it.”
Mrs. Joshua sauntered towards the door. She paused and glanced at her son over her shoulder. “Don’t go outside today. Something bad could happen to you.”
He didn’t look at her as he answered. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”