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I’m not one for telling stories set during my childhood. It was a period of time in which I felt beyond lost, unaware that with age comes emotional security. I remember feeling confused and in need of direction constantly, worrying that my mom would turn the corner at Macy’s and I’d never see her again. My dad was the school principal and I was still afraid of my basketball coach. I’d worry that I’d miss my stop on the bus and become custody of the state. It seemed like everywhere I went there was something waiting to trip me up, fool me into its grim embrace. And I know my situation was nothing new; some kids never receive enough guidance and therefore become weak-willed and unsure of themselves. However, something really did happen to me. I was nine-year-old boy, and I wish I could say the situation was resolved today.

Our family lived in southern Ohio, in an Appalachian holler most common in that part of the country. Town was a stretch of pavement less than half a mile in length, lined with general stores, falling bars and diners. The one departure in the scenario was our neighborhood, a suburban failure of historic proportions. It comprised of over a hundred houses, all equally mediocre in size and shape. There were four culs-de-sac and eleven picket fences. Eight animal-likened mailboxes and thirty-two American flags. All of these homes have been bought and sold countless times, and the prices did nothing but plummet when the recession eventually hit. My family lived on a corner just like all of the other corners, and sometimes I became lost embarrassingly close to home.

On a particular day in early October one year, I was following a friend of mine home from school. Normally I’d have been on the bus where I was supposed to be, but he was asked to deliver some homework to a schoolmate of ours and I chose to join him. My parents would definitely not have allowed it, especially considering that my grades have been slipping and our school’s achievement assessment tests were happening that week, but I knew they wouldn’t be home until at least five pm anyway, so I took the risk. The destination was in our neighborhood, adjacent to the school grounds (which were actually formed like a spider). My friend Stanton seemed to know the way and we talked about our mutually failing grades and a TV show the majority of the time. When we reached the house and he was approaching the front door, I hadn’t even noticed. I was still speaking about a mutually favorite cartoon character when the rapping on the wood began thirty feet away. I stopped and turned to see a strange-looking man answer the door. He was average height with rather extreme facial features: huge nose, protruding jaw, thin purple lips and tiny eyes behind wire-framed lenses. He was a cartoon character himself and he made me nervous. He and Stanton spoke at the door for a couple of minutes while I watched curbside. I don’t think the man ever even glanced in my direction, but Stanton certainly did, right before he walked inside and the door shut behind him.

I waited for over twenty minutes. During that time, I pretty much gave in to thoughts of child-murder and molestation, warnings from parents and teachers, and the possibly solo route back home. After enough anxiety for one afternoon, I crept up to the house, just to see if I could hear Stanton or the man talking inside. There was no way my knuckles were making contact with the front door. I made my way up the patchy lawn and stopped behind an overgrown shrub next to the porch. I waited with open ears and heard nothing. A couple of long minutes passed before I saw what sent me running. It was an arm in the window, reaching for the adjustment rod of the blinds. It was only a fleeting glimpse, but I saw a man’s slender hand with long fingernails nearly curled at the tips. The forearm bore several large scrapes and cuts, some of them obviously fresh. The eggshell-shaded blinds closed and the man’s appendage retreated instantly. I turned on my heel and ran.

It took me over twenty minutes to find my house, and by the time I’d arrived I was overcome with guilt. I knew I could’ve knocked on a neighbor’s door for help, for the police, for any assistance at all regarding Stanton. I knew that my parents wouldn’t even be home yet, and that my best move would be to phone the authorities the second I crossed our home’s threshold. I knew that these things needed to be dealt with immediately and if I believed my friend was in danger it was my responsibility to see that he gets the help he needs. Yet, I found myself walking into the kitchen and pouring myself a glass of water. I set my bag on the table and plopped in the seat before it. I stared into my glass for a while and decided to just acknowledge the real reason I wasn’t calling anybody: I wasn’t allowed to be there in the first place. And with my grades slipping these days, I knew I’d be in major trouble, even though in all likelihood Stanton was just fine. I started telling myself that he was probably helping the other student with the homework he was delivering, or maybe got caught up in conversation with the weird guy at the door. As a child, these rationalizations coupled with my innate fear of the world led me to a stupid decision. I kept my mouth shut.

That night I could barely sleep an hour without coming to life in a panic. I reassembled the man’s face in my dreams and gave him a voice similar to The Joker. I wondered what he said to Stanton to get him to come inside, if it involved puppies or candy. I went through a constant back-and-forth between “Stanton lives” and “Stanton dies” in a fetal position under the sheets. By morning, I felt like a zombie.

I took my dazed expression past my mother and headed for the backseat of the car. My dad settled behind the wheel in his short-sleeved button-up and tie. The ride to school was a short one, and my hands were vibrating as I walked into the elementary school. Stanton was a part of my class and I prayed with all I had that he would be at his desk when I entered. I worked my way down the hall, past loud kids everywhere, and through the door of my classroom. I was the first one inside.

I watched the clock and waited as students started coming in, hanging their coats and digging into their backpacks. The minutes ticked slowly by and when the bell rang, everyone was there. Except Stanton.

I felt sick and my innards were twisting all day, yet I said nothing. At this point, I figured I’d be in so much trouble for not telling anyone that I’D be in trouble with my parents and the police alike. I’d heard things about people going to jail for not reporting crimes that they should’ve. So I stayed quiet and let it unfold on the news that evening. Stanton was missing. His parents were a wreck. And I began to develop some sort of personality disorder. Seeing his picture on the TV screen was surreal and I would have to periodically excuse myself to cry in the bathroom. I saw myself falling deeper and deeper into the mess I’d allowed to develop, and in my mind I was headed straight for prison if I decided to tell my story. I was sure my parents would be so ashamed they wouldn’t even visit me in stir. It was a couple of excruciating days before another child disappeared. I didn’t know the boy this time, but I’d seen him around. He was a tiny redheaded thing with huge glasses. He wore socks with sandals and collected lunchboxes. The other kids seemed to like him; a girl I knew tutored him after school once a week and said he was really nice. She thought he was bad at math but amazing at science, so the two wound up teaching each other a thing or two. I listened to stories about the kid and sat on my hands, rocking back and forth apprehensively. That night I went to bed with the faces of two young boys now haunting me, and an address in our neighborhood that I’d never forget. “432 Wardle.” That was all Stanton had said that fateful afternoon. I let the worry wash over me and the tears roll once again…but then an idea struck me.

It was nearly daylight before the plan was effectively in line, but goddamnit I’d made one. I was scratching the sweaty back of my neck as I scrawled onto a piece of notebook paper with my ineffective left hand. “KIDNAPPER LIVES AT 432 WARDLE.” The next day brought our Ohio achievement assessment tests, which were a big deal for the entire faculty and school board, and I’d barely studied. My parents knew it and had been hounding me for days, but in my state I just couldn’t get it together. I was sure to fail miserably but didn’t really care; my focus was on the dampened scrap of paper balled in my fist, which I carried to the elementary school offices knowing he’d be in the teacher’s lounge at the time. The halls were still pretty clear of students and staff, so I turned the knob and headed inside. I walked past the school secretary’s desk, which led to my father’s office door, when something caught my eye. It was a large manila envelope labeled with a vivid green post-it. It read “432 Wardle.”

That’s when the principal, my dad, startled me from behind. He was unusually friendly. “Hey! Whatcha doin here? I was just gonna come get you.” Before I could respond, he was speaking again. “I’m gonna need you to do me a favor, bud.”

I swallowed hard, swiftly stuffing my note in my pocket. “What?”

“I meant to ask you last night, but I think you still have enough time to do it right now, before the tests begin…just need you to run this homework to one of our students. It’s in the neighborhood…real close by; don’t worry.”

I found myself turning pale and sweating under the collar. The thoughts swimming in my head reached Olympic levels and I backed away from him slowly, eyeing the envelope. I couldn’t put it all together, and didn’t know what to say. “Which student is it?” He laughed, “Another one with bad grades…now get the heck outta here.”

Fiction


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