Chapter Three

Excerpt from the novel My Friend Jackson (2020)

By Christopher D. Ochs

The bruise over Jasmine’s obliques screamed whenever she jumped to shoot or block. Her shots bounced off the rim. She couldn’t keep up with the opponents she was assigned to guard. But what stung worse than the side-sticker where Nevaeh had jabbed her was that Coach Garcia benched her the last half of the night’s inner-city league game.

Her cheers from the sidelines were anemic as well, thanks to her aching ribs and the gym’s humidity sucking her meager energy out of her. Jasmine’s team barely held it together when she was on the court. And despite the best efforts of short and chubby Madison, they lost by a landslide. The spirits of everyone on her team were miles away from festive.

Between plays, Jasmine scanned the audience for Ma.

Nah, she’s probably still at her interview. It’s just as well, the way this game has gone down the toilet.

After the final buzzer, Nevaeh sidled over to Jasmine as she trudged back to the home team locker room. “I’m sorry about yesterday,” she said nodding toward Jasmine’s ribs as she toweled sweat from her neck.

Jasmine stopped in her tracks at the end of the bleachers, as the departing crowd of students and parents milled around them.

Nevaeh is being … nice to me?

Team shrimp Madison squeezed her way past the two girls toward the locker room, followed by the tail end of the first squad. “Way to go, Fatty-son,” they grumbled behind her back.

“I really feel bad about it, Jasmine. Caleb drives me nuts sometimes. I feel like I made you lose the game.” Her sweet voice and disarming smile tugged at Jasmine as they walked to the lockers. “I’ll make it up to you. I’ll ask Coach about putting you back in first squad for next week’s game. If you’re feeling up to it, of course.”

“That would be awesome,” Jasmine said. Somewhere in the back of her head, something didn’t add up. Nevertheless, Jasmine scrambled for a compliment to offer in return. “You were really hot with your rebou—”

Nevaeh split off down her row of lockers, unheedful of the olive branch Jasmine had offered her. Instead, she dove into an animated conversation with other squad-mates.

With a shrug and an I-shoulda-known-better half-smile, Jasmine continued to her locker. She peeled off her sweaty uniform and headed toward the showers.

At the end of her aisle, she was snagged by another girl. Jasmine blinked with surprise at Akilah—she had already changed into her street clothes.

She must’ve sprinted through the shower.

“Wow, Nevaeh apologized?” Akilah said, her eyes wide with wonder.

“Guess so. She said she was sorry.”

“That’s amazing. What else did she say?”

Jasmine recounted the conversation in a stumbling manner, while Akilah listened with intent concentration, prompting her repeatedly for more details.

“Then what did she say?” Akilah asked.

That’s the fourth time she’s asked that.

Not only was Akilah’s stream of questions shallow and repetitive, but Jasmine picked up the same vibe from her that she got from Nevaeh. Her eyes narrowed to size up Akilah’s ulterior motives.

“Tell ya later. I gotta wash up and get home.”

Nevaeh and a few other girls left the shower room as Jasmine entered. Nevaeh flashed Jasmine her magazine model smile, but the other girls were too busy chatting to pay her any attention.

She rushed through her shower. She still didn’t feel very clean, as most of the soap had been used up. Jasmine grabbed a towel and returned to her locker aisle, but was met with a line of empty benches—the girls in her row were already dressed and gone. Her fists squeezed tighter than her stomach when she spotted her combination lock. It was undone, and the locker door was ajar.

She tightened her towel around her midsection and dashed down the aisle, her sopping wet feet squishing the non-skid mats against the concrete floor. She flung the locker wide open, fearing that everything would be stolen. But a quick rifling through her stuff found all her things were still accounted for—blouse, backpack, flip-phone, socks rolled in her shoes, jeans …

Jasmine pulled out her panties from the crumpled jeans. Her lower lip trembled.

The crotch of the panties was soaked red. They cradled an open vial filled with food coloring. The bright red stain had leaked onto the front of her pants as well.

A snicker echoing over the wall of lockers grew into an avalanche of sadistic belly laughs. Jasmine ran between the bench and lockers to the end of the aisle, only in time to catch the locker room door click shut with finality. The receding laughter and name-calling by Nevaeh, Akilah, and who-knows-who-else filtered under the doors.

Crying in silence except for the occasional strangled sob, she tamped out her clothes in extra towels to squeeze out the last wetness and prevent the stain from spreading further. She dressed, pausing before putting on her jacket, instead tying its arms around her waist over the patch of red.

Jasmine crept close to Coach’s office window. Not wanting anyone else to know the cruel joke played on her, she held her breath as she padded past yellowed blinds louvered halfway shut. Coach Garcia faced her chalkboard, writing names and stats.

It wasn’t the embarrassment alone that angered Jasmine—it was the added frustration that whining to Coach would only make things worse in the long run. Holding a pile of crimson-splotched towels at arms’ length, she dropped them into the hamper.

Jasmine trembled, her fists clenched with resolve, in front of the locker room doors. When she could stop shaking, she wiped her face dry and opened the door.

They will not see me cry.

With her head down, she zoomed past a janitor tackling the Herculean task of cleaning up mounds of post-game trash and rivers of spills around the bleachers. A few girls from the opposing school still filtered out of the visitors’ locker room. As each turned the corner to the street exit, they ran the gauntlet of Caleb’s radar.

Aw, dammit. Him, too?

His easy smile drew their attention away from his lust-filled eyes as he chatted up every pair of legs that strolled, jogged, or paraded by. Jasmine searched for another exit, but not before she cringed at Caleb’s shout echoing throughout the gym.

“Jasmine—Hey, girl, where you goin’ so fast?”

“Home,” she replied flatly, burning him with a scowl intended to scream “Go Away” to anyone with half a brain. Nevertheless, after Jasmine did a U-turn, Caleb’s kicks squeaked on the court floorboards catching up from behind. Before she could make it to the far exit, Caleb jumped in front her, his arm barring the way.

“By yourself? Now why’s a fine lookin’ beauty like you headin’ home all alone?”

Jasmine wanted to shove past him, but the dampness beneath her jacket reminded her to play it cool. She gritted her teeth with a quiet growl as she focused on the exit behind Caleb.

Through their doors stormed Nevaeh. Her expression transformed in a heartbeat from surprise to raw hatred. Though her eyes bounced between the two of them, Jasmine couldn’t mistake Nevaeh’s glares of unfiltered malice reserved for her.

Jasmine nodded past Caleb’s shoulder. “I think there’s someone else who wants to talk to you.”

He spun around. Jasmine held back a snicker at the garish, stylized “C” logo on his cap glowing with gold embroidered thread.

With open arms, his best smile, and without a tinge of shame, Caleb beamed, “Babe! There you are. We was lookin’ for you.”

Jasmine took advantage of the distraction to double back again. She smiled at the argument pitching to a rolling boil behind her.

They deserve each other.

At the corner of the school, a pair of sweating parents corralled a foursome from the home team into an idling metro bus. A smaller group from the other team and their apprehensive chaperone thought better of sharing the crowded ride and waited for the next bus.

I really don’t want to deal with anyone from either team right now. And I’m screwed ifCaleb and Queen Nevaeh get me in a squeeze play here. Ifthe rest of the team shows up, they’d probably be on Nevaeh’s side too.

She turned her head to glare at the antiquated cameras angled to cover the meager courtyard and the crowds it contained.

And those things are no good. It’s the school’s worst-kept secret that their security system goes up and down like a yo-yo.

With a stiff inhale to steel her resolve, Jasmine set off on the long walk home. She gave the residential block around the school the once over, clenching her jaw at the deceptively innocent beginning to the gauntlet ahead of her. At least, by following the bus route, she wouldn’t get lost in the darkness of her unfamiliar new neighborhood.

A scant number of well-kept house façades soon gave way to crowds of boarded-up windows. Broken glass crunched under her shoes. Within the span of one block, flattened energy drink cans were replaced with empty beer cans.

Spasmodic fluorescents from Mom-n-Pop stores made the streets jitter against the late Saturday evening sky. In a neon collision of rhythms, barrooms flashed the names of brews that their regulars had vomited into concrete stairwells, or whizzed into side streets. Krylon tags of artists and gangs making their mark in the world shouted across every vertical surface.

Compared to the Projects, this is a cakewalk.

But I can’t let my guard down. Gotta stay on my toes.

Jasmine gripped the straps of her backpack. Her forearms burned from the effort, almost as much as her ribs ached during the disastrous game.

Another city bus rolled past Jasmine, and the welcome stink of diesel drowned out the acrid odors oozing from the stairwells and alleys. She scanned the faces of passengers in the pallid bus interior lights as they flashed on by. A few team members straggled inside this bus, but neither Akilah nor Nevaeh was in her usual rear seat. And no sign of Caleb.

Maybe they caught a different bus. Or they’re still arguing.

While she waited for a crosswalk light, Jasmine’s phone hummed against her thigh. She pulled it from her pants pocket, careful not to move the tied jacket and expose the red secret it hid. She responded to the unknown number on the screen with a skeptical sneer.

Ifthis is another ofNevaeh’s goons, I’m gonna—

“I got the job!” Ma’s voice blasted out of the tiny speaker.

Jasmine grimaced and jerked her head away from the saw-toothed squeal of victory. “What? Where?”

“One of those upper end coffee places. It’s a dream come true! Whaddya think of that?”

Before Jasmine had a chance to reply, Ma’s excited voice continued to rattle out of the phone.

“I can’t talk long, Jazz. They want me to start tomorrow night. Isn’t that great? Oh, but Jazz, I’m sorry I missed your game, my interview ran late. Oh, and you forgot your keys at home again. Just wait for me at Bibi’s. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Oops—my new boss needs his phone back. Gotta go.” The call ended with Ma’s tinny laugh.

“That’s great, Ma,” Jasmine said without enthusiasm to a dark phone.

Yeah, great—she got the job. More nights home alone with no one to talk to.

The light changed, and seemingly endless lines of cars squealed to a stop. Their impatient engines revved as though they were doing the pedestrians a favor by permitting them to cross. Behind the shadows of a mom and her kids, Jasmine hustled across the intersection. She winced at the side-sticker that wouldn’t go away.

Past the homeless who shuffled their carts of ill-smelling treasure, past addicts with unfocused eyes swimming in the throes of their chemical dreams, past their comrades whose greedy darting gazes searched for their next score, Jasmine hastened her pace. Her momentary burst of speed soon dropped back down to the fastest limp her side permitted.

A shot rang out half a block behind her. A stampede of yelling strangers forced her forward. The press of the crowd became stifling when, two row-homes ahead, four prostitutes scarcely older than herself brought traffic to a honking standstill. The yowls of their hair-pulling, cloth-tearing cat fight vaulted over the gasps and cheers of gathering spectators.

Three men tumbled out of a bar directly in front of Jasmine. Shouting obscenities, two of them threw drunken punches at each other and a bouncer twice their size. A second gun blasted thunderously behind her. Jasmine pinched out a yelp of surprise when a nearby window chirped with a ricochet.

Jeezus—was I ever wrong! This is just as bad as the freakin’ Projects.

Blocked from front and behind, Jasmine dodged into the nearest side street. She hustled without breaking into anything faster than a brisk walk, squinting to adjust her vision to the hungry darkness that blotted out the neon behind her.

Diving into an alley’s not the safest, but it’s better than that crap back there.

Jasmine quick marched, weaving through the obstacle course of garbage cans, dumpsters, and scampering rats. Backtracking from a dead end and trying to keep her bearings in the labyrinth of brick, she hoped the next street looked familiar. It didn’t. She tried the next side street that promised it would point her in the right direction.

Gotta get back to the bus route before another detour gets me totally lost.

Halfway down the latest alley, her ears pricked up at the sound of a footstep. Before she could turn around, her world went blinding white with pain.

Jasmine doubled over in the back doorway of a Chinese food joint, gasping for air between two dumpsters reeking of rotting meat and burnt soy sauce. Her ribs were aflame and the back of her skull felt like it had been split by a jackhammer. She reached for her searing scalp, and her backpack tumbled off her shoulder, clanging against the dumpster.

“Bitch, I told you to stay away from Caleb. He’s mine!”

Jasmine gathered her rubbery legs underneath her to stand, steadying herself against the nearest dumpster. Her vision returned, rippled with wet blurs that might have been tears, snot, or blood.

In the long shadows cast by distant streetlights, Nevaeh’s face burned out of the darkness, livid with rage.

Jasmine’s abs clenched, trying to squeeze behind her spine, when she recognized the signs of a girl prepped for a throwdown. Earrings gone. Hair tied tight behind her head. Face slicked with a sheen of Vaseline to deflect blows and scratches.

What the hell do I do now?

The oversized heavy steel ring emblazoned with a prominent gold initial “C” no longer hung from her necklace. It was on the middle finger of Nevaeh’s fist. A tuft of Jasmine’s frizzy hair dangled from it.

That ring—it ain’t her bling, it’s Caleb’s.

The tendons of Nevaeh’s knuckles quivered, taut as bridge cables. She shoved Jasmine backward against the wall with her free hand.

Jasmine whimpered as her head thumped against brick. The world’s loudest gong clanged in her ears. Her legs buckled, helpless against the ground that seemed to spin under her. She kept her eyes glued on Nevaeh’s burning scowl, the only thing that kept her consciousness from tumbling upside-down.

Jasmine’s accusing stare only infuriated Nevaeh even more.

“Can’t you take a fuckin’ hint? Don’t you know you ain’t wanted, ho? Our team don’t want you. Caleb don’t need you. And I sure as shit want you gone!”

Nevaeh raised her fist again. “Die, bitch!” Putting her full weight behind it, she swung, aiming Caleb’s ring straight for Jasmine’s face.

A glistening blur of dark umber shot out from behind the other dumpster. It wrapped around Nevaeh’s head, and a muffled scream flooded Jasmine’s ears. Nevaeh clutched at the glistening slimy blob, but her attempts to claw the suffocating mass away from her face proved futile.

A split second later, Nevaeh’s whole body snapped away like a rag doll.

Caleb’s heavy steel and gold ring clattered on the asphalt.

Nevaeh’s strangled gurgling made Jasmine’s gut twist. Somewhere beyond the dumpster came a slurping rasp, as if from a giant bowl of ramen. The sound of tearing cloth and rending flesh was followed by the sickening crack of bone.

Jasmine curled into a ball, raw terror forcing her knees into her chest. Her feet twitched with every shallow ragged breath. She clamped her head between her hands, but the horrific sounds still reached the spinning pit of her darkest fears.

The dull murmur of the streets had reclaimed the alley, and her sense of up and down returned. Righting herself against one dumpster, she wiped the stinging sweat and tears from her eyes and squinted into the murky light.

What the fuck just happened?

One timid step from between the two dumpsters, then another. Jasmine peeked around the reeking metal containers. Emboldened by the silence, yet expecting Nevaeh to lunge out of the darkness, she took another step into the center of the alley, backpack in hand as a makeshift shield.

She was alone in the shadows.

“Nevaeh?” Jasmine said tentatively.

What the hell am I doing! Do I really want to find her? Or whatever that thing was?

The faraway rumbling of engines was the only reply. She called the name of her attacker again, her throat constricting tighter with each syllable.

Something that mimicked a grotesque voice slithered above her head, hissing like wet leather on a griddle. Jasmine craned her neck, peering in the direction of the nightmare sound.

Nothing but brick wall, dumpsters, rusted and crumpled gallon containers of cooking oil, and garbage bags piled high into mounds of uncollected trash.

The voice scraped out a hideous rasp that came close to speech, from some horrible mouth that was never meant to form human words.

Mah lin zee. Koo lin da. Jasss-meen.

Christopher D. Ochs

Christopher D. Ochs‘ foray into writing began with his epic fantasy Pindlebryth of Lenland. Along with several short stories published in the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group and Bethlehem Writers Group anthologies and websites, his collection of mirthful macabre short stories appears in If I Can’t Sleep, You Can’t Sleep. His urban fantasy, My Friend Jackson, is a Finalist in Indies Today’s Best Books of 2020. And there’s always at least one novel and four short stories bubbling in the cauldron.With previous careers in electrical engineering and software, and his incessant dabblings in CGI animation, music, voice talent on radio, DVD and Voice of OTAKON, it’s a wonder he can remember to pay the dog and feed his bills. Wait, what?

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