SOUNDS LIKE A BREAKFAST CEREAL
Ara's Shrine to the
Intellectual Property Gods: Hogwarts,
most of the text of Hex's letter and Bathilda Bagshot's A History of Magic
belong to JK Rowling, while U2 belongs to Larry, Adam, Bono and the Edge. I
don't own any part of Brooklyn (although there's a bridge someone's recommending
that I look at...), and I don't own La-Z Boy, McDonald's and Barnes & Noble.
I only own Hex, the people around him, and his little corner of the world.
Sincerest apologies to readers from the New York area. Instead of trying to go
for the highest possible degree of authenticity (I might wind up picking a real
street in a real zip code and feel bad that Hex doesn't really live
there), I just made everything up.
Wow, I am finally on the Quill! Many thanks to Seldes Katne, for not panicking
when Ara dropped me on her doorstep; and to all the respondents of Ara's small
market survey (in random order): Clarimonde, PBS Jones, Corgi, MissFrankie and
Blue_Eyed_Athena. Without your encouragement, I would not be here.
LIKE A BREAKFAST CEREAL
Chapter One — The Letters in the
"What does not kill me makes me
stronger." -- Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
"I’m sorry, Chris," Cathy Lartmore
said, pulling away from him, "but we can’t see each other anymore."
Chris Holmstrom, better known as
"Hex," looked blankly at the pretty girl sitting as far away from him
as the car’s tiny back seat would allow. "What?" was all he could
"We can’t see each other anymore,"
his girlfriend of less than one month repeated.
"Are you serious?" The look on
Cathy’s face said she certainly was. "Can you give me one good reason
why?" he asked, arching an eyebrow and ignoring the pain from the piercing
he’d gotten just that day.
She shrugged. "We’re too
A roaring was beginning in Hex’s ears.
"I thought you said opposites attract."
"That’s when it’s a good
different. We…well, we’re different in a not good way."
Cathy cocked her head to one side and
scrunched up her button nose, thinking. Hex once thought the habit was cute.
Tonight, it made him nauseous. "Well, I think I’m a pretty peaceful
person, while you get into fights all the time."
"I never start them."
"You do, too! Don’t think I don’t
know about that time you beaned Malik Jones!"
"He caught the ball with his groin,"
Hex said. "That was some hustle, if you ask me." Everyone thought it
had been his fault, that he had hit Malik on purpose, but to this day he swore
that he had absolutely nothing to do with it. Just because strange things
sometimes happened around him didn’t mean that he made them happen. It got him
his pretty cool nickname, though.
She thought up another argument. "How
about…I’ve always tried to do well in school, and you’re…well, you just
got kicked out."
"I didn’t get kicked out," he
clarified. "They just encouraged me not to come back next year.
Anyway, what does it matter? We can still see each other. I can wait for you
after school and we can hang out."
Cathy looked alarmed. "My parents don’t
want me seeing a boy who got kicked out of school."
"So this is all about your parents?"
Hex chuckled. "What do they know?"
"Chris, you don’t understand. My
parents and I sat down and talked it over, and I realized that they were right.
You’re totally wrong for me. I have a bright future ahead of me if I work hard
and go to college. You’re…well, let’s just say you’re distracting me
from that goal."
"I never made any demands when you said
you had to do your homework."
"It’s not just that," Cathy said.
"You’re also a bad influence, trying to get me to ditch school and drink
beer and…and…go all the way." This last was said in an embarrassed
"I’m trying to get you to live your
life," Hex told her. "You’re only young once, y’know. There’s
not much time to do stupid things before you have to grow up."
"You have no intention of growing up,
Chris! Look at you! You have no sense of responsibility, no work ethic, no
"—unlike Jeff Spielman?" he asked,
naming the straight-A golden boy from Lawton High School, which they had both
attended the previous year. Jeff was the starting first baseman on the Lawton
baseball team. Hex had been his backup until the Malik incident took him off the
Cathy’s baby blue eyes widened. "How
did you know about me and Jeff?"
Hex frowned. The truth was he didn’t.
"So this is about Jeff?"
She shrank further into her corner of the back
seat. "Well, it’s partly about him, too."
"Damn." He fell silent.
"Chris?" Cathy asked tentatively
after a nerve-wracking pause. "Say something, Chris."
"Not yet. It’s not everyday a guy gets
dumped. I’m trying to make the moment last forever."
Tears welled up in her eyes. Hex had once been
sucker for that move. Tonight, he knew she could turn the tears on and off like
a faucet. "You’re mad."
"I’m hurt, and upset, and
confused," Hex told her, opening the car door and unfolding his long legs.
"And yeah, I guess I am a little mad." He slung his leather jacket
over his shoulder and slammed the door shut. The glass in the window shattered
and the alarm began to shriek piercingly, disrupting the other couples at the
drive-in, as he walked away.
* * *
"You’re late." Tiny Thompson, the
enormous owner of Tiny’s Electronic Repair Shop, greeted his employee as Hex
slouched into the store the next morning.
"It’s only ten-thirty," the boy
replied, dropping his battered knapsack on the floor behind the counter.
"Work begins at nine. I called your
place, but your old man said you weren’t there. Where did you stay last
night?" the big man asked sternly, opening a small refrigerator that stood
in the corner.
"A friend’s." Hex eased himself
down behind a wilderness of TV, radio and VCR innards and Tiny set a chipped
bowl, a bottle of milk, and a box of Cheerios in front of him.
"Hmph. Found a new school yet?"
"Bet you’re not looking, either."
Tiny sighed. "You’re wasting your brains, boy, if you stop now."
Hex grunted around a mouthful of cold cereal.
His boss placed a hammy hand on his shoulder
and squeezed, not noticing him wince slightly. "Eat your breakfast, now,
then get back to work. Mrs. Fletcher’s coming in for her fax machine this
* * *
The stairwell was dim and stuffy when Hex
trudged his way up to the tiny apartment he shared with Hank Ulster, his foster
father. From behind the thin walls and doors, he could hear people arguing,
watching TV, or making dinner.
From behind his own door, he heard the TV and
a mighty belch, a sign that Hank was home. Hex produced a key from a chain
around his neck and let himself inside.
The windows were shut, trapping the mingled
odors of sweat, beer and stale food inside the cramped space. The late afternoon
sun shed light on the piles of dirty clothes, old newspapers and empty pizza
boxes, making the debris seem oddly beautiful.
His foster father was sprawled in the battered
La-Z-Boy, staring at the TV. He was a balding, rather flabby man in his forties.
There were quite a few empty beer cans at his feet, and he looked like he’d
spent the whole day in the stained tank top and sweatpants he wore (which he
Hank looked balefully at the boy.
"Hello, Hex, welcome home!"
Hex said sarcastically, in the high-pitched voice he imagined a hysterical
parent would use. "Goddammit, kid! Where were you? I’ve been worried
The man snorted. "I don’t care where
the hell you go so long as I get my check."
"Go to your room, young man, and think
about what you’ve done!" Hex
"You’re starting to get a smart mouth
on you, boy," Hank said, his voice beginning to rise.
"You’re grounded!" Hex
gave his parting shot in the same high-pitched voice as he dragged his knapsack
to the tiny alcove off the living area that he called his room.
He flopped onto the rickety camp bed and put
some U2 on his Walkman to drown out the noise of the TV. Hex then rolled back
his sleeve and looked thoughtfully at the bruises on his arm that were starting
to turn a sickly greenish-purple.
Before he knew it, he was asleep.
* * *
He awoke early the next morning to the
grumbling of his stomach. Hank had forgotten about dinner last night. Or maybe,
Hex thought as he noted the empty pizza box on the scratched dinner table,
he’d forgotten to wake Hex up for his share of dinner.
The door to the single bedroom was open,
allowing his foster father’s snores to reverberate throughout the tiny
apartment. Hex showered and changed his clothes, not caring how much noise he
made because Hank slept like the dead. On his way out, the boy helped himself to
a couple of wilted twenties from Hank’s cracked and greasy billfold.
As he dawdled over his Egg McMuffin at a
nearby McDonald’s, Hex thought about how he had had to drag himself out of bed
every morning when he had been in school; and how easy it was to get up early
now that he wasn’t.
He arrived at the repair shop just as Tiny was
opening up for the day. The big man smiled when he saw him. "Morning,
Hex nodded briefly. "Morning."
"There’s a letter for you."
"A letter. Something came in the
mail." Tiny grinned and handed him a large yellowish envelope, addressed in
green ink to
Electronic Repair Shop
NY USA 52416
There was no stamp or postmark. The envelope
was sealed with a coat of arms with a lion, eagle, badger and snake surrounding
a large letter H. Hex looked blankly at it.
But his boss was brimming with excitement.
"Looks like it’s from one of those fancy private schools. You applied
without telling me, didn’t you?"
"Maybe one of your guidance counselors at
Lawton recommended you. I knew one of them could see you had some
"They all hated me. I gave Mrs. Spears a
nervous breakdown, remember?"
Tiny was grinning so hard he looked like the
bottom half of his large face was all teeth. "Whoever it was, Hex, it looks
like you have a very good friend somewhere. Go on, open the envelope!"
Muttering something about mail bombs and
anthrax, Hex unsealed the envelope and slid out a letter written on the same
heavy yellowish paper.
WITCHCRAFT and WIZARDRY
of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorc., Chf. Warlock,
Mugwump, International Confed. Of Wizards)
Dear Mr. Holmstrom,
We are pleased to inform you that you have
been accepted to the fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.
Term begins on September 1. We await your
owl by no later than July 31.
Hex was even more confused than before. Hogwarts?
Witchcraft and Wizardry? What was all this about an owl?
"It’s a new school isn’t it?"
Tiny asked excitedly. "Why don’t you look happy?" he asked with less
enthusiasm when Hex nodded numbly.
"Take a look at this," the boy told
his boss, handing over the letter.
Tiny’s beady eyes skimmed it quickly. When
he was done, he looked just as confused as Hex did. "Witchcraft and
Wizardry? What the hell…?"
"Never heard of the place. And there’s
no such thing as magic, right?"
A second sheet of paper listed the
requirements mentioned in the letter. Cauldrons? Robes? Hex was pretty
sure Barnes & Noble didn’t stock A History of Magic by Bathilda
Bagshot. Maybe he could mail the letter to one of the weird Goth chicks who had
been in his English class last year. He was pretty sure they’d flip if they
got a letter like this one. Maybe they even had an owl to send to the school.
Tiny’s huge shoulders sagged in
disappointment. "And here I thought you got into a new school."
"Aw, Tiny, don’t worry about it. I can
get a late transfer and just catch up, right?"
"First you have to find a school that
will take you."
* * *
Another letter was waiting for Hex ("Mr.
C. Holmstrom, the Alcove Beside the Bathroom, Apartment 5B, 697 ½ Bedford St.,
Brooklyn, NY USA 52416") when he got back to the apartment that afternoon,
which he promptly pitched, unopened, into the garbage.
He thought the joke was over, but the next
morning there were two more yellow envelopes nailed to the front door beside the
eviction notice they got every week. Two more were on the front counter at
Tiny’s when he got there. "This wasn’t much of a joke," Hex said
as he sent them through the shredder. "Why do these people keep at
Tiny only grunted in reply. He’d become more
of a slave driver after his initial disappointment.
But the letters continued to arrive. There
were three waiting on Hex’s bed after work. One was in Hank’s pocket the
next morning. He threw that one out and breathed a sigh of relief that he’d
found it ahead of his foster father.
The counter girl at McDonald’s gave him a
weird look when she gave him his Egg McMuffin and a letter addressed to
"Mr. C. Holmstrom, Order # 8964, McDonald’s, 564 Bedford St., Brooklyn,
NY USA 52416". There were even more waiting in the refrigerator at Tiny’s,
which didn’t do anything to cheer up the big man. "Will you please tell
these friends of yours to stop wasting paper?" he asked Hex as they took a
garbage bag of shredded letters to be recycled.
I would, but I don’t have any friends,
Hex thought. Cathy crossed his mind for the first time in days and was surprised
that he felt no pain.
* * *
Hank was already home when Hex arrived that
afternoon. The TV was off and there was twice the usual number of empty beer
cans at the man’s feet. The hairs on the back of the boy’s neck prickled.
His foster father chugged down the last of his
beer and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "Hello, there,
boy," he greeted Hex with a slight slur to his words. "How was your
Hex grunted noncommittally and tried to slink
away to his alcove.
"I asked you a question." Hank’s
tone was heavier, as if he were offended at Hex’s display of bad manners.
"Fine," he finally replied.
"I’m glad you had such a good
day," he said in a sugary-sweet voice that screamed danger more than
his earlier tone of voice had. "You know what kind of a day I
Hex didn’t answer. He knew he was going to
hear about it anyway.
Hank rose unsteadily to his feet and tried to
recount his day. "Well, this morning I got up, and…I had breakfast…then
I went to work, only they wouldn’t let me in because they said I was
"That’s too bad," the boy said,
trying to humor his foster father.
"That’s too bad," he mimicked. "It gets worse, boy…they didn’t give me any final pay.
So I get back here, and what do I find?" He shoved a thin white envelope
practically up Hex’s nose.
"What’s this?" Hank snarled,
breathing beery fumes right in Hex’s face. "This is a piece of
paper saying I owe six hundred dollars to repair a broken car window."
"I said that was funny, we don’t have
a car," his foster father ranted on. "But then I remembered you,
"What? Why me?" Hex asked. "I
didn’t break any…" His voice trailed off as he remembered the scene at
the drive-in. Breaking up with Cathy…walking out of her car…slamming the
door…the alarm shrieking. Had he slammed the door enough to break the window? I
couldn’t have! "I didn’t break any car window!" he said.
But Hank was convinced he was guilty.
"Don’t lie to me, boy. You’ve gotten in enough trouble in the past.
Didn’t I tell you that the last time was to be the last time?"
"I didn’t do it!" Hex cried as his
foster father shook him roughly by the shoulders.
"Don’t give me that!" There was a
great burst of pain as Hex’s shoulder hit the wall, and another as Hank’s
foot connected with his side, reaching ribs that had already been sore for the
past few days.
The boy slid to the floor, trying to shake off
the daze so he could get up and finally fight back this time. It hurt to
breathe. Hex jerked reflexively as he heard a footstep, but relaxed again when
he opened his eyes and watched Hank walking toward the refrigerator.
His foster father’s roar of outrage blasted
Hex to his feet. "What is this, boy?" Hank demanded, rounding on him.
"What is this?"
"What is what?" he asked, confused.
Then he saw the refrigerator, its door ajar, and the yellow envelopes flooding
out of it. Hex groaned. "No! Not now!"
"You know about this?" Hank took one
and peered at it. "It’s for you," he growled, tossing the envelope
at him. "Where’s my beer?"
"I don’t know!" he said, backing
up against the wall as his foster father advanced toward him, murder in his eye.
"Maybe you drank it all!"
"Maybe you drank it all!"
Hank roared, grabbing Hex by the scruff of his neck. "Your check is late,
boy! Maybe they know you’re drinking and won’t pay me to take care of you
"I didn’t!" Hex said,
panicked and angry, pushing futilely at his foster father. He was strong for his
tall, lanky build, but Hank outweighed him by at least fifty pounds. "Get
your goddamned hands off me!"
"This is for your own good!" Hank
said as he threw the boy against another wall. "You need to be taught a
The next eon passed in a haze of pain, noise
and blood as Hank took his frustration at his sad and wasted life out on Hex’s
hide. Hex tried once or twice to get off the floor and make a run for the door,
but the pain and fear finally overpowered him. Finally, he just lay there and
waited for the fire in the different parts of his body to run together and
finally numb him.